Inside the last frantic record-keeping days that got Trump in hot water
So-called “burn bags” were widely present, according to two former Trump White House officials, with red stripes marking those containing sensitive classified material destined for destruction. Such bags, according to Mark Zaid, a lawyer well versed in national security law, are common. But a former official said staff would also put seemingly unclassified items there, such as handwritten letters and notes given to managers. Zaid said it was not necessarily inappropriate to dispose of unclassified information in this way, as long as it was done within the bounds of the law. But those who observed the process later admitted it was not entirely clear whether the documents should have been directed to the National Archives instead of the incinerator.
It was during these tumultuous times that – according to investigators – boxes containing classified material were packed up and sent to Trump’s home in Mar-a-Lago.
Nineteen months later, Trump’s handling of presidential records and West Wing material has placed him in unprecedented legal danger. Last week, the FBI used a warrant to recover the items, which the bureau said included four sets of top-secret documents and seven other sets of classified information.
But his approach in recent days has often been echoed throughout the White House, as recounted in interviews with more than a dozen former White House officials and advisers, who spoke on condition of anonymity to candidly describe the last days.
The final, frantic pack from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. of Trump began in earnest as the president was absorbed in other matters: the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot and impending impeachment. Standards and protocols have been set aside. Everything was overdue, including the formal acknowledgment by the General Service Administration of a transition of power.
“We were 30 days behind what a typical administration would be,” a former senior Trump official recalled.
Throughout December and January, administration officials received guidance from the White House Counsel’s Office on how to comply with the Presidential Records Act, the post-Watergate law that dictates procedures and processes for the retention of government records. There were professional staff who helped manage computer systems and National Archives and Records Administration integrations that reminded record keeping assistants.
Staff also began to withdraw, leaving an increasing workload to a decreasing number of assistants. Some of them were bitter and exhausted and showed little desire or inclination to help a new administration that their boss said had stolen the election.
“Part of the MAGA movement is a kind of ‘fuck you’ for the government bureaucracy, which you can interpret as the deep state,” a former Trump staffer said. “People were really unhappy with the transition and the outcome of the elections. It’s the last element of control they had [while] in power.”
The weeks following the November election were among the most chaotic for a Trump White House that had been defined by chaos. The West Wing was rocked by Trump’s loss to Joe Biden, and the President’s refusal to concede largely froze the transition process in place.
Some aides recalled that staff secretary Derek Lyons tried to maintain some semblance of order in the West Wing despite election uncertainty. But he left the administration at the end of December, leaving to others the task of keeping the necessary documents in the National Archives. The two men at the top of the bureau’s hierarchy — then White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Trump — took little interest in it, aides and advisers recalled. Meanwhile, the responsibility of overseeing the packing of the outer oval and the dining room, an area where Trump liked to work when not in the Oval Office, was left to Trump aides Molly Michael and Nick Luna, according to several former aides.
A Trump spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the story. A person close to Meadows insisted that “all procedures were followed according to guidelines”.
Open government groups were already, at that time, trying to force the hand of the administration to preserve its archives. Tom Blanton, director of George Washington University’s independent non-governmental National Security Archive – one such group lobbying the White House – explicitly stated that the goal was “to prevent a bonfire in the rose garden”. He and others were concerned about reports that White House staff and outside advisers were using personal emails, WhatsApp and disappearing messages.
There was also a belief that Trump simply didn’t care about the Records Retention Act.
“The attorney’s office often worked at odds with how President Trump handled cases,” Blanton said. “For Trump, the White House was another casino he bought. This one was right on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Trump has long enjoyed collecting and displaying items that remind him and others of his personal exploits. His golf courses and Trump Tower office are cluttered with photos, magazine covers depicting him, and memorabilia attesting to the perks of his wealth and fame. Anything he didn’t want was usually taken away with little attention. Indeed, while working in the Oval Office, Trump ended up shoving materials from his desk into a cardboard box every day that, when filled, would be returned and replaced, according to two former officials.
Often, Trump would call aides to bring him a souvenir — a letter from Kim Jong-Un of North Korea was a particular favorite — and he would happily show off to guests.
Under investigation for possible violations of the Espionage Act and other laws, Trump has denied any wrongdoing while offering shifting explanations for the material’s presence at Mar-a-Lago. Aides said they recalled very few conversations during the transition about what to do with the documents Trump would, on occasion, bring to the White House residence.
As for the broader transition, a handful of Trump’s White House aides have argued that the process of sorting and storing government records, returning equipment, and relieving employees of their security clearances, was clearly described by the attorney’s office and carried out with care.
“You sign all this stuff when you start, you’ve been told before here’s how the Presidential Records Act works, here’s what it says, here’s what it means, as far as we expected,” said one. former Trump White House official. “It seemed very routine.”
But most aides described a haphazard process as Inauguration Day approaches. Lawyers would send advice when staff members should pack and how it should be done, but “they weren’t going to go through paper,” recalled a former staff member.
“It was just drawer by drawer,” the person said. “It’s not a scientific process. You don’t have someone breathing down your neck watching what you were taking.
This stood in stark contrast to the process put in place by Trump’s predecessor. President Barack Obama’s administration, facing term limits, knew it was leaving and began the transition in August 2016, according to Neil Eggleston, Obama’s former White House attorney. Beyond that, they didn’t consider the records retention rules to be vague.
“It was very clear that they were not allowed to take any government property with them and that included any government documents created at the White House, anything related to their official jobs at the White House,” he said. -he declares. “And nobody ever fought us on that, it was never a problem. … The rule that you couldn’t take government documents was a clear rule.
Trump, Eggleston surmised, fell victim to his own political impulses. “[H]We denied we were defeated so they didn’t really engage in a transition process because he refused to let it happen,” he said. “So that meant they were in a pretty tight spot on inauguration day.”
For outgoing White Houses, there is usually a process for debriefing classified documents and then a procedure for handing over government phones and computers. But for many of Trump’s last holdouts, that process came after the Capitol Riot, a day of eye-popping violence that sparked heightened security across Washington. Security barriers erected around the White House, aides recalled, created more logistical hurdles for an already exhausted and drained staff.
Neglect ensued in many departments. Many staff seemed more interested in getting copies of “jumbos” – the giant photos that adorned the walls of the West Wing – than sorting and packing their files. Those who remained focused on juggling the operational demands of running a country with the political whims of a president who, until days before, was trying to cling to power.
There just wasn’t much attention to protocol.
“Compared to previous administrations on both sides,” conceded to a person familiar with the process, “there was less willingness to adhere to the Presidential Records Act.”
Sam Stein contributed to this report.