Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department is aware that classified material has been found on former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property but didn’t explicitly confirm a federal probe on the matter is underway.
“[T]he National Archives has informed the Justice Department of this and communicated with it,” Garland said at a news conference Tuesday. “And we will do what we always do under these circumstances: look at the facts and the law and take it from there.”
Archivist David Ferriero notified members of Congress Friday that some of the contents in 15 boxes of presidential records at the Florida resort were “marked as classified national security information.” Ferriero said the National Archives had asked Trump’s representatives to continue searching for more materials.
“It would be a gross departure from a long line of precedent to not even initiate an investigation,” said David Laufman, a former DOJ official who oversaw investigations concerning the mishandling of classified information.
Several former government officials have been charged with unauthorized removal or retention of documents, from Central Intelligence Agency director David Petraeus to national security adviser Sandy Berger.
Legal experts said because presidents typically enjoy broad authority over decisions about what is considered classified, any possible criminal prosecution against a former president could pose more serious obstacles.
But the hurdles that could apply to a former president may not apply to others who helped pack, transport and open the boxes.
Trump, for his part, issued a statement decrying the controversy as partisan: “The National Archives did not ‘find’ anything, they were given, upon request, Presidential Records in an ordinary and routine process to ensure the preservation of my legacy and in accordance with the Presidential Records Act.”
“If this was anyone but ‘Trump,’ there would be no story here,” Trump said.
The controversy once again puts the Biden Justice Department in the uncomfortable position of deciding whether to investigate a former president, in a fractious political environment.
In a normal case, a couple of federal prosecutors and FBI agents would be assigned to develop a timeline of events and a list of people involved in transporting the documents from Washington to Florida. The DOJ’s decision could become more clear in the coming weeks, if federal agents begin contacting witnesses and prosecutors apply for warrants to search email accounts of people who worked closely with Trump in the White House.