Lawmakers ask National Archives to probe whether Donald Trump took White House documents to Mar-a-Lago

WASHINGTON – Donald Trump's months-long withholding of presidential documents from the National Archives – he stored up to 15 boxes at his Mar-a-Lago estate for nearly a year – could spark yet another investigation of the ex-president.

The National Archives and Records Administration is being pushed to investigate whether Trump improperly took classified information with him when he moved out of the White House on Jan. 20, 2021. The House Committee on Oversight and Reform has requested information related to the probe. 

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the oversight committee, said Trump apparently violated the Presidential Records Act by keeping some records and destroying – or trying to destroy – other documents from his presidency.

"I am deeply concerned that these records were not provided to NARA promptly at the end of the Trump Administration and that they appear to have been removed from the White House in violation of the Presidential Records Act," Maloney said in a letter to the National Archives.

Trump and aides have provided no explanation for why it took him months to turn over the documents to the Archives as required by the Presidential Records Act. 

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In a written statement, Trump said he had "collaborative and respectful discussions" with the National Archives over the 15 boxes of documents that he said "contained letters, records, newspapers, magazines, and various articles."

The National Archives declined to respond to questions from USA TODAY.

“We do not comment on potential or ongoing investigations,” the agency said in a statement.

The Justice Department also declined comment.

In her letter, Maloney asked for an explanation of the delay in document production, details of the contents of the boxes, whether classified material is included and a description of records that Trump destroyed or tried to destroy. 

The letter requested a response by Feb. 18.

Maloney noted that Trump accused Hillary Clinton, his 2016 election opponent, of breaking the law through her use of personal email to conduct government business while she was secretary of State.

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The National Archives asked the Department of Justice for guidance on Trump's handling of documents, said a person briefed on the matter. The DOJ in turn said the Inspector General at the National Archives should examine the material first.

It's unclear what the status of any potential investigation is.

Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said the president has done nothing wrong: “The Fake News machine, powered by anonymous and politically-motivated sources, is running in overdrive this week, and the leftist media is complicit in spreading these lies. These reports are all missing one key component: evidence.”

Trump has been fighting with the government over presidential documents since leaving office, especially the special committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in which a mob stormed the Capitolto try and overturn his election loss to President Joe Biden.

Trump went to court seeking to block the National Archives from releasing documents to the committee, calling it a politically motivated fishing expedition. The Supreme Court disagreed and cleared the way for the Archives to provide the documents to the Jan. 6 committee.

The Archives' attempts to secure Trump's 15 boxes of documents appears to be a separate matter, one shrouded in secrecy.

In his statement, Trump said media accounts portraying a contentious back-and-forth with the National Archives and Records Administration are false, and that "it was a great honor" to work with officials there.

"The papers were given easily and without conflict and on a very friendly basis," Trump said.

Previous presidents have argued with the Archives about what items are personal and what are required to be disclosed under the Presidential Records Act, though no cases involved the volume of records that Trump hauled off.

Officials from the Trump White House, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid Trump's wrath, said the president had a habit of ripping up documents. Aides had to tape them back together. One former official said Trump also had a habit of taking work with him back to the residence of the White House, and some of those documents could well have wound up in Mar-a-Lago.

Trump also disputed news reports that he had papers and documents flushed down toilets at the White House.

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The former president is facing a gantlet of investigations in addition to the the Jan. 6 committee probe. Prosecutors in New York are investigating the Trump Organization's past financial dealings, while a grand jury in Atlanta is planning to examine the pressure that Trump put on Georgia election officials to change that state's election results. 

The National Archives said in a statement that it arranged for "the transport of 15 Trump boxes from Mar-a-Lago in mid-January." The Archives said Trump's representatives have informed the agency "that they are continuing to search for additional Presidential records that belong to the National Archives."

David S. Ferriero, archivist of the United States, said the records should have been turned over when Trump left the White House and said it is important that presidents follow the law with respect to record keeping.

“The Presidential Records Act is critical to our democracy, in which the government is held accountable by the people,” Ferriero said. 

Jeffrey Engel, director of Southern Methodist University’s Center for Presidential History, said that not since Richard Nixon has such a dispute raged over access to an ex-president’s White House records.

“Self-preservation,” Engel said, is the driving force shared by both Nixon and Trump in their quest to shield documents from public view.  

Even if Trump violated the Presidential Records Act, the remedies are unclear.

Robert David Johnson, a history professor at Brooklyn College who has studied the issue, said the law is more civil in nature than criminal. It would be difficult to pursue a criminal case against a president because he or she could claim that the documents are personal property and not subject to the law.

Johnson also compared Trump's actions to those of Nixon, whose efforts to withhold documents and tapes from the Archives led to passage of the presidential records act of 1978.

The problem, he said, is "it's hard to enforce."

Contributing: Kevin Johnson