Aides who had worked in Donald Trump’s White House were not surprised this summer when the FBI found highly classified material in boxes at Mar-a-Lago, mixed with news clippings and other items.
They’d seen such haphazard collections before.
During his four years in office, Trump never strictly followed the rules and customs for handling sensitive government documents, according to 14 officials from his administration, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss what they called Trump’s mishandling of classified information.
He took transcripts of his calls with foreign leaders as well as photos and charts used in his intelligence briefings to his private residence with no explanation. He demanded that letters he exchanged with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un be kept close at hand so he could show them off to visitors. Documents that would ordinarily be kept under lock and key mingled with piles of newspaper articles in Trump’s living quarters and in a dining room that he used as an informal office.
Officials and aides who worked in proximity to Trump said they are not sure how more than 300 classified documents ended up at his Mar-a-Lago estate, triggering a lengthy effort to retrieve them that has resulted in a criminal investigation. But in the waning days of his presidency, as Trump grudgingly began to pack up his belongings, he included documents that should have been sent to the National Archives and Records Administration, along with news articles and gifts he received while president, several former officials said.
What those ex-Trump aides and advisers saw in an inventory of items recovered by the FBI in August - classified documents in boxes, stored alongside newspaper and magazine articles, books and gifts - looked to them like the idiosyncratic filing system Trump used in the White House.
Senior aides said they tried for years to impose some order on the flow of classified information in the White House - with little success.
“The rigor I had felt at the end of meetings during the Obama administration . . . where someone very carefully collected all the pieces of paper or stayed behind in the room and made sure there was nothing left - that rigor just did not exist at the end during the Trump period,” said one former official who regularly attended Situation Room meetings.
A longtime adviser who still sees Trump regularly described him as a “pack rat” and a “hoarder.” Several former aides said Trump spent his time in office flouting classification rules and intimidating staffers who might try to take secret intelligence material away from him.
“I can’t say what went wrong that resulted in some boxes ending up at Mar-a-Lago,” said a former official who knew that Trump took classified information to his White House quarters. “But you can see that as an extension of four years of accommodating the president.”
A spokesman for Trump declined to comment for this article, other than to repeat a previously issued statement in which he accused the Justice Department of leaking information to The Washington Post to hurt Trump’s image. “President Trump remains committed to defending the Constitution and the Office of the Presidency, ensuring the integrity of America for generations to come,” that statement said.
Trying to keep track
Many of Trump’s aides had not previously worked in senior government positions, and they came to the White House naive about the established procedures for handling classified information. In August 2017, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general who had served as secretary of homeland security, tried to set things straight.
Kelly issued written guidance requiring that any document sent to the president for his review first be cleared by the staff secretary, the official in charge of keeping track of documents, as well as the chief of staff. Kelly also set up rules for what to do after Trump had seen a document.
“All paper leaving the Oval Office must be submitted to the Staff Secretary for appropriate processing,” said the guidance, a copy of which was reviewed by The Washington Post. It was the staff secretary’s job to mark the document “President Has Seen” and submit it to the Office of Records Management. “This process is vital for compliance with the Presidential Records Act,” the guidance states, referring to the law that makes White House records the property of the federal government.
“It wasn’t perfect, but we did have a better idea of what was going and coming,” said a former senior administration official.
The White House normally establishes a “chain of custody” for classified documents, said Larry Pfeiffer, the senior director of the White House Situation Room in the Obama administration and a former CIA chief of staff. “They log [the documents], track them, give them numbers. If anyone says, ‘Hey, whatever happened to that memo given to the president?’ the [staff secretary] can say, ‘Hey, it’s in the national security adviser’s office.’ "
Former officials credited Kelly and then-Staff Secretary Rob Porter, as well as his successor, Derek Lyons, with trying to impose some order on Trump’s chaotic ways. But it was a struggle. John Bolton, a former national security adviser to Trump, said Trump sometimes asked to keep material after intelligence briefings, with no clear pattern as to what he wanted. Sometimes, Bolton said, he would ask the president to give documents back. “It was very erratic,” he said. “Some things would catch his attention, and other things wouldn’t.”
Kelly said Trump “rejected the Presidential Records Act entirely.” He added that “many people would regularly say to him, ‘We have to capture these things.’ "
“What he did doesn’t surprise me at all,” Kelly said.
Two Trump advisers said he took, or had aides take, all the documents he wanted to the private dining room or the residence. These documents were not usually closely tracked, one of these people said. One former official said some classified documents in the residence were visible to anyone passing by.
Although it was not necessarily improper for a president to take classified information to the residence to continue working and White House staffers are accustomed to adjusting to any president’s working style and preference, it was not always clear that Trump needed the documents for official business, another former official said.
White House staffers found ways to accommodate Trump’s demands. The letters he exchanged with Kim, for example, were not stored in the White House space customarily used for sensitive documents but were kept where aides could quickly retrieve them at Trump’s request. The letters were among the items first flagged as missing by the Archives after Trump left office and were included in the 15 boxes of material sent back from Mar-a-Lago in January.
Aides also found other ways to circumvent Trump’s “sticky fingers,” as one put it. White House staffers retrieved from the residence documents that Trump had torn into pieces, then reassembled the papers and returned to them to secure facilities so that they could be preserved as presidential records. Others who routinely briefed Trump said they developed a practice of never leaving classified documents in his possession unless he demanded them.
Several former officials said they knew that the system, or lack of one, for handling classified information carried risks. Sensitive documents could get lost. Intelligence might fall into the hands of people not authorized to see it.
But Trump intimidated his aides. “They didn’t challenge him,” one former official said.
Several people singled out Mark Meadows, who became Trump’s chief of staff in March 2020 and stayed through the end of his term, as incapable of telling the president no. That set a tone that others followed, these people said.
“This characterization is completely absurd,” said Ben Williamson, a Meadows spokesman.
In the absence of higher authority backing them up, personnel in the staff secretary’s office could not be expected to remove documents from the president’s possession, another former aide said. “They would have gotten their heads cut off by the president if they tried to take things from him.”
Harried final days
Whatever fragile discipline Kelly and others tried to instill began to disintegrate after the 2020 election. The usual packing process that occurs during a presidential transition was delayed because Trump would not concede that he had lost reelection and did not want to move out of the White House, two former administration officials said. Many officials who by then had some experience with security procedures had left the White House, to be replaced by less-seasoned personnel who did not understand classification rules and were afraid to say no to the president, former officials said.
“This created the opportunity for mistakes to happen,” one of the former officials said. “What the president’s intent was is the key question,” the former official said of the transfer of classified material to Mar-a-Lago
As Trump dug in his heels, officials in the staff secretary’s office tried unsuccessfully to find some sensitive documents they believed were still in his possession. With the White House expected to hand over all original, relevant documents to the Archives, senior administration officials held several conversations about missing materials, former officials said.
Lyons, the staff secretary, and some White House aides discussed places in the residence and elsewhere in the White House where Trump could be keeping the documents, as well as gifts he had accumulated. There was no exact list of everything that had gone missing, one of the former officials said. But “we knew the places he usually worked and the other senior people who might have had documents,” the officials said.
Their efforts to find the missing materials were hampered by a lack of senior leadership, some said. Meadows had no experience managing the flow of classified documents inside the White House. In late December, Lyons, who had tried to do that, stepped down from his position as staff secretary and was not replaced.
“The office’s functions were downgraded,” a former senior administration official said. “There wasn’t a deputy, so Mark took over the office.”
Meadows told aides in the final days of Trump’s presidency that he would handle retrieving some of the documents from Trump, but he never did, according to a former senior administration official with direct knowledge of the matter. “Those records weren’t collected,” the former official said. A Meadows spokesman disputed this characterization.
Eventually, with his efforts to overturn the election results gaining little to no traction in statehouses or courts, Trump began the process of packing up. It was in those harried final days that aides said he and others put briefing books, gifts, news clippings and other possessions into boxes, some in the residence and others in different locations throughout the White House.
Other materials already were in boxes.
Some White House lawyers took note of the two dozen boxes of documents in the residence and suggested that Trump turn them over, according to an email from the Archives reviewed by The Post. When Archives officials ultimately found extensive classified materials in boxes returned to them from Mar-a-Lago, it was a surprise to some of his advisers, including White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and his deputy, Pat Philbin, according to a person familiar with the matter. “We had no idea what was in those boxes,” said a lawyer with knowledge of the packing.
At least one lawyer for Trump’s political group, Alex Cannon, was so concerned about what was in the boxes sent to Mar-a-Lago that he in late 2021 told other Trump aides not to handle the boxes or their contents, according to two people who spoke to Cannon. After 15 boxes were transferred from Mar-a-Lago to the archives in January, Trump asked Cannon to declare that all material being sought by the agency had been returned. But Cannon declined, because he wasn’t sure it was true, The Post reported on Monday.
Among Trump’s aides and staff, “no one knew what was really in” the boxes, one person involved in Trump’s legal effort said.
The former senior administration official who said Meadows took over as the de facto staff secretary bemoaned the lack of preparation for the transition.
“The plan should have been to figure out what all he had, what needed to go back, and to get relevant senior administration officials to help the staff secretary’s office in getting as much as they could back. That didn’t happen,” the former official said. “There was no plan to do it because Derek was gone, and people were looking for other jobs and trying to survive day by day.”