The FBI on Aug. 8 executed a search warrant at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property in Florida. A federal judge magistrate signed the warrant after “finding probable cause that evidence of multiple federal crimes would be found” at Trump’s property.
A property receipt of the items taken from Mar-a-Lago listed 11 sets of classified records, including four sets labeled “Miscellaneous Top Secret Documents” and one marked as “Various classified/TS/SCI documents,” which stands for “Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information.”
A heavily redacted affidavit filed by the Justice Department in support of the search warrant revealed that 92 of those 184 classified documents were marked as “secret” and 25 were marked as “top secret,” including classified national intelligence further marked to protect the control and dissemination of intelligence sources, methods and activities.
The partial redacted search warrant for Mar-a-Lago revealed that Trump is under investigation for potentially violating any of three criminal codes involving the mishandling of classified information.
The Justice Department investigation is still in the early stages and more information undoubtedly will come out. For now, we provide a timeline of events, which we will update as warranted.
May 6 — The National Archives makes a request for missing presidential records “and continued to make requests until approximately late December 2021 when NARA was informed twelve boxes were found and ready for retrieval” at Mar-a-Lago, according to the Department of Justice’s affidavit requesting a warrant to search Mar-a-Lago.
December — NARA begins to arrange for the documents to be securely transported from Mar-a-Lago to Washington.
Jan. 18 — NARA receives 15 boxes of records from Trump that had been taken to Mar-a-Lago, including “highly classified documents intermingled with other records,” according to DOJ’s affidavit.
Jan. 31 — NARA issues a statement that says some of the records it retrieved from Mar-a-Lago “included paper records that had been torn up by former President Trump.” NARA adds, “As has been reported in the press since 2018, White House records management officials during the Trump Administration recovered and taped together some of the torn-up records.”
Feb. 7 — NARA issues a statement confirming that it had received 15 boxes of records from Mar-a-Lago in mid-January. “Former President Trump’s representatives have informed NARA that they are continuing to search for additional Presidential records that belong to the National Archives,” the statement says.
Feb. 8 — NARA issues a statement that says: “Throughout the course of the last year, NARA obtained the cooperation of Trump representatives to locate Presidential records that had not been transferred to the National Archives at the end of the Trump administration. When a representative informed NARA in December 2021 that they had located some records, NARA arranged for them to be securely transported to Washington. NARA officials did not visit or ‘raid’ the Mar-a-Lago property.”
Feb. 9 — The special agent in charge of NARA’s Office of the Inspector General refers the matter to the Department of Justice, according to DOJ’s affidavit.
Feb. 18 — The archivist of the United States sends a letter to the House Oversight Committee that says: “NARA has identified items marked as classified national security information” in the materials recovered from Mar-a-Lago. As a result, “NARA staff has been in communication with the Department of Justice.”
Trump issues a statement that says, “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.”
April 11 — At the Department of Justice’s request, the White House Counsel’s Office formally transmits a letter asking that “NARA provide the FBI access to the 15 boxes” taken from Mar-a-Lago.
April 12 — NARA notifies Trump’s lawyer that it intends to provide FBI access to the 15 boxes of documents taken from Mar-a-Lago in January.
April 29 — The Department of Justice’s National Security Division sends a letter to Evan Corcoran, an attorney for Trump, that says access to documents taken from Mar-a-Lago is “necessary for purposes of our ongoing criminal investigation.”
“According to NARA, among the materials in the boxes are over 100 documents with classification markings, comprising more than 700 pages,” the letter says. “Some include the highest levels of classification, including Special Access Program (SAP) materials.”
The DOJ tells Corcoran it needs access to the documents to assess “the potential damage resulting from the apparent manner in which these materials were stored and transported.”
That same day, Corcoran writes to NARA, seeking to delay the FBI review of the documents taken from Mar-a-Lago. Corcoran argues that Trump needs time “to ascertain whether any specific document is subject to [executive] privilege” and have the opportunity “to assert a claim of constitutionally based privilege.”
May 1 — Corcoran again asks NARA to delay the FBI review.
May 10 — In response to Corcoran’s request for a delay, Debra Steidel Wall, acting archivist of the United States, sends a letter to Corcoran, saying that she “decided not to honor the former President’s ‘protective’ claim of privilege,” and to allow the FBI review to begin as soon as May 12.
“The question [of executive privilege] in this case is not a close one,” Wall writes. “The [current] Executive Branch here is seeking access to records belonging to, and in the custody of, the Federal Government itself, not only in order to investigate whether those records were handled in an unlawful manner but also, as the National Security Division explained, to ‘conduct an assessment of the potential damage resulting from the apparent manner in which these materials were stored and transported and take any necessary remedial steps.'” (The letter was first published Aug. 23 on a website owned by journalist John Solomon, who was designated by Trump to serve as his liaison to NARA.)
A DOJ attorney also sends a letter to Trump’s lawyer asking for a sworn statement from a Trump representative that any documents provided in response to the subpoena “represent all responsive records,” a Justice Department court filing says.
May 16-18 — FBI agents review the 15 boxes retrieved from Mar-a-Lago. They identify “184 unique documents bearing classification markings, including 67 documents marked as CONFIDENTIAL, 92 documents marked as SECRET, and 25 documents marked as TOP SECRET,” according to the DOJ affidavit.
May 24 — Trump’s lawyer seeks an “extension for complying” with the subpoena to produce any additional classified documents, according to a DOJ court filing. (The DOJ later granted the extension until June 7.)
May 25 — Corcoran, Trump’s lawyer, sends the Justice Department a letter that asserts, among other things, that Trump, as president, had “Absolute Authority To Declassify” government documents, according to DOJ’s affidavit.
June 2 — Trump’s attorney tells the DOJ that FBI agents can meet him tomorrow and “pick up responsive documents” from Mar-a-Lago, in the words of a DOJ court filing.
June 3 — Jay Bratt, chief of the counterintelligence and export control section in the DOJ’s National Security Division, and three FBI agents visit Mar-a-Lago, where an attorney for Trump presents them with “a single Redweld envelope” containing documents “in a manner that suggested counsel believed that the documents were classified,” according to court filings. The agents also tour a storage room, which DOJ says contained about 50 to 55 boxes. Trump’s attorney tells the government agents that “all the records that had come from the White House were stored in one location – a storage room,” and “there were no other records stored in any private office space or other location at the Premises,” in the words of a DOJ court filing.
“Critically, however, the former President’s counsel explicitly prohibited government personnel from opening or looking inside any of the boxes that remained in the storage room, giving no opportunity for the government to confirm that no documents with classification markings remained,” the court filing said.
A person identified as the former president’s “custodian of records” hands the government officials at Mar-a-Lago “a signed certification letter” that says a “diligent search was conducted” for “all documents that are responsive to the subpoena.” It adds, “No copy, written notation, or reproduction of any kind was retained as to any responsive document,” the DOJ court filing said.
A “preliminary review” of the envelope that Trump’s attorney gave to the government agents “revealed the following: 38 unique documents bearing classification markings, including 5 documents marked as CONFIDENTIAL, 16 documents marked as SECRET, and 17 documents marked as TOP SECRET,” the court filing said.
June 8 — Five days after Bratt’s visit, the Justice Department sends Trump’s lawyer a letter saying Mar-a-Lago is not “authorized for the storage of classified information.” The DOJ asks that Trump’s office preserve the documents and secure the room where the documents are stored, according to the DOJ affidavit.
June 22 – A lawyer for the Trump Organization confirms to the Justice Department that the company has security cameras near the storage area at Mar-a-Lago, according to a Justice Department court filing.
June 24 – DOJ serves a subpoena to a Trump Organization lawyer seeking “[a]ny and all surveillance records, videos, images, photographs, and/or CCTV from internal cameras located on ground floor (basement)” of Mar-a-Lago since Jan. 10, 2022, a Justice Department court filing says.
July 6 – In response to the June 24 subpoena, the Trump Organization provides DOJ with a hard drive, according to a Justice Department court filing.
Aug. 5 — A federal magistrate judge in Florida, Bruce Reinhart, signs a search warrant for Mar-a-Lago “after finding probable cause that evidence of multiple federal crimes would be found at the Premises,” according to the judge’s order to unseal the affidavit.
Aug. 8 — The FBI executes the search warrant at Mar-a-Lago. The search lasts nine hours and results in the recovery of “roughly 13,000 documents totaling approximately 22,000 pages.” That includes 13 boxes that “contained documents with classification markings, and in all, over one hundred unique documents with classification markings — that is, more than twice the amount produced on June 3, 2022, in response to the grand jury subpoena,” according to a later DOJ court filing. The classified materials were found not only in the Mar-a-Lago storage room, but also in Trump’s office.
“The classification levels ranged from CONFIDENTIAL to TOP SECRET information, and certain documents included additional sensitive compartments that signify very limited distribution,” the court filing said.
Aug. 11 — U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland confirms the search of the former president’s residence, saying he “personally approved” the request for a search warrant. “Upholding the rule of law means applying the law evenly, without fear or favor. Under my watch, that is precisely what the Justice Department is doing,” he says.
(In a later court filing, the Justice Department said “the government resorted to a search warrant only after the former President failed to return missing records as requested by NARA and then as required by a grand jury subpoena.”)
Garland also announces that the Department of Justice filed a motion to unseal the warrant and a copy of an inventory of seized items.
Aug. 12 — The U.S. Southern District Court of Florida releases partially redacted versions of the search warrant and property receipt for items collected at Mar-a-Lago.
The property receipt shows that the FBI seized three sets of records labeled either “Confidential Document” or “Miscellaneous Confidential Documents,” three sets labeled “Miscellaneous Secret Documents,” and four sets labeled “Miscellaneous Top Secret Documents.” One set was listed as “Various classified/TS/SCI documents,” which stands for “Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information.”
“Top secret” is the highest level of classification because the classified information, if released, could cause “exceptionally grave damage to the national security,” as the National Archives explains on its website.
The search warrant reveals that Trump is under investigation for potentially violating any of these three criminal codes:
- Section 2071 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code, which relates to someone who “willfully and unlawfully conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates, falsifies, or destroys” a government record.
- Section 1519 of Title 18, which relates to someone who “knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States.”
- Section 793 of Title 18, which is part of the Espionage Act and deals with “gathering, transmitting or losing defense information.”
Solomon, one of Trump’s representatives for interacting with NARA, appears on Fox News and reads a statement from Trump’s office that says Trump, as president, had a “standing order” to declassify all documents taken to Mar-a-Lago.
Notably, however, all three laws cited in the warrant apply to the mishandling of government records regardless of classification. (For more, read “Trump’s Dubious ‘Standing Order’ to Declassify Documents.”)
Aug. 22 — Lindsey Halligan, an attorney representing Trump, files a “Motion for Judicial Oversight and Additional Relief.” The motion requests that the court appoint a special master to review the documents collected from Mar-a-Lago during the execution of the search warrant and prevent further FBI review until a special master is appointed. It also asks that the Justice Department provide “a more detailed” receipt of the documents seized during the search and return any seized items that aren’t in the scope of the search warrant.
Aug. 26 — The Justice Department releases a heavily redacted copy of the affidavit that it filed with the court in Florida to obtain the search warrant. The affidavit states that “probable cause exists” to believe that classified national defense information records were “improperly” moved to Mar-a-Lago and stored in “unauthorized spaces.” It says, “There is also probable cause to believe that evidence of obstruction will be found at the PREMISES.”
The affidavit says the FBI’s preliminary review found 14 of the 15 boxes that Trump provided to NARA in mid-January contained classified information. At that time, the FBI identified “184 unique documents bearing classification markings, including 67 documents marked as CONFIDENTIAL, 92 documents marked as SECRET, and 25 documents marked as TOP SECRET. Further, the FBI agents observed markings reflecting the following compartments/dissemination controls: HCS, FISA, ORCON, NOFORN, and SI,” which places controls on access to especially sensitive information.
“Controls on the dissemination and use of classified national intelligence are necessary to protect intelligence sources, methods, and activities,” according to the National Security Agency’s classification manual. The NSA manual says:
- The HCS marking “protects the most sensitive” information gathered from “clandestine and/or uniquely sensitive” human sources.
- The FISA marking indicates the material was gathered under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows for court-approved electronic surveillance and physical searches of “a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power.”
- ORCON is short for “originator control,” which means that anyone seeking to disseminate information marked as ORCON must get “advance permission” from the originator of the document.
- NOFORN means the information is “not releasable to foreign nationals.”
- SI, or special intelligence, “protects technical and intelligence information derived from the monitoring of foreign communications signals.”
Aug. 27 — U.S. District Judge Aileen M. Cannon in Florida issues a preliminary order that indicates her “preliminary intent to appoint a special master” and schedules a Sept. 1 hearing on Trump’s motion.
Aug. 29 — The DOJ notifies Cannon that its Privilege Review Team completed its review of the documents taken from Mar-a-Lago for claims of attorney-client or other privileges. It “identified a limited set of materials that potentially contain attorney-client privileged information.”
Aug. 30 — The Justice Department files a motion opposing the appointment of a special master, calling it “unnecessary” and saying it “would significantly harm important governmental interests, including national security interests.”
The DOJ motion says the former president’s team — in response to a May 11 grand jury subpoena — gave the FBI a single envelope containing 38 classified documents at Mar-a-Lago on June 3 (see June 3 entry). The motion also contains new evidence of what the DOJ calls “obstructing an investigation.”
After a visit to Mar-a-Lago on June 3, “the FBI uncovered multiple sources of evidence indicating that the response to the May 11 grand jury subpoena was incomplete and that classified documents remained at the Premises, notwithstanding the sworn certification made to the government on June 3,” the motion says. Specifically, the FBI “developed evidence that government records were likely concealed and removed from the Storage Room” at Mar-a-Lago. FBI agents visited the storage room on June 3, but were not allowed to inspect any boxes in the room, it adds.
The DOJ also files, under seal, “a more detailed receipt for the property seized” from Mar-a-Lago on Aug. 8. “[T]he government is prepared, given the extraordinary circumstances, to unseal the more detailed receipt and provide it immediately to Plaintiff,” the motion says.
Sept. 1 — In response to the DOJ’s motion opposing the appointment of a special master, Trump’s legal team files a response calling the Aug. 8 search of Mar-a-Lago an “unprecedented, unnecessary, and legally unsupported raid.” The court filing describes the seized government records as the legal “possession, by a President, of his own Presidential records.”
Judge Cannon hears arguments regarding Trump’s request for a special master. She says she will order the public release of a more detailed list of the documents seized from Mar-a-Lago, but delays a ruling on whether to allow a special master.
Sept. 2 — The Justice Department releases a more detailed list of documents seized on Aug. 8 from Trump’s office and a storage area at Mar-a-Lago.
The list includes 48 “empty” folders marked as having once contained “classified” material, including 43 from Trump’s office. The search also turned up 42 empty folders marked as “Return to Staff Secretary/Military Aide,” including 28 in Trump’s office. The filing doesn’t say if the documents that were once in the empty folders were recovered elsewhere in Mar-a-Lago during the search.
In total, the list shows the FBI took possession of 18 government documents marked as top secret, 54 marked as secret, 31 marked as confidential. That includes, from Trump’s office, 7 documents marked as top secret, 17 marked as secret and 3 marked as confidential.
Sept. 5 — Judge Cannon grants Trump’s request for “the appointment of a special master to review the seized property for personal items and documents and potentially privileged material subject to claims of attorney-client and/or executive privilege.” She also places “a temporary injunction on the Government’s use of the seized materials for criminal investigative purposes pending resolution of the special master’s review process.”
She does, however, say that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence “may continue to review and use the materials seized for purposes of intelligence classification and national security assessments.”
Sept. 8 — The Justice Department notifies the court of its intent to appeal Cannon’s special master ruling. Pending that appeal, the department also files a motion seeking a partial stay of Cannon’s order to allow the department to continue reviewing the classified material — “a discrete set of just over 100 documents,” it says — for its criminal investigation.
DOJ argues that the continued review is necessary to prevent “irreparable harm” to the government and public concerning national security risks. “The Intelligence Community’s review and assessment cannot be readily segregated from the Department of Justice’s (“DOJ”) and Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (“FBI”) activities in connection with the ongoing criminal investigation, and uncertainty regarding the bounds of the Court’s order and its implications for the activities of the FBI has caused the Intelligence Community, in consultation with DOJ, to pause temporarily this critically important work. Moreover, the government and the public are irreparably injured when a criminal investigation of matters involving risks to national security is enjoined,” the motion says.
Notably, the motion argues that the court’s injunction blocking the Justice Department from using classified records in the criminal investigation “could impede efforts to identify the existence of any additional classified records that are not being properly stored—which itself presents the potential for ongoing risk to national security.”
Sept. 12 — Lawyers for Trump file a motion opposing the government’s motion for a partial stay to allow the Justice Department to continue reviewing the classified material for its criminal investigation.
“In what at its core is a document storage dispute that has spiraled out of control, the Government wrongfully seeks to criminalize the possession by the 45th President of his own Presidential and personal records,” the motion states.
Lawyers for Trump argue “there is no indication any purported ‘classified records’ were disclosed to anyone.” Moreover, they say, “the Government has not proven these records remain classified. That issue is to be determined later.”
The Justice Department supports one of the two special master candidates suggested by Trump’s legal team. The DOJ says in a court filing that U.S. District Judge Raymond J. Dearie for the Eastern District of New York would be acceptable. The department also supports the selection of its two candidates, both retired federal judges.
Dearie, who was nominated by President Ronald Reagan to the court in 1986, has had “senior status” since 2011, which means his seat became vacant but he can still take cases. Cannon needs to approve Dearie, or another person, as special master.
Sept. 15 – Cannon appoints Dearie as special master and rejects DOJ’s request to allow its criminal investigators to regain access to materials seized on Aug. 8 from Mar-a-Lago.
DOJ had warned in its motion for a partial stay of Cannon’s order that delaying the criminal investigation “into the mishandling of classified records” would cause “irreparable harm,” arguing that “[t]he government’s need to proceed apace is particularly heightened where, as here, obstructive acts may impede its investigation.” But in her order, Cannon says she isn’t willing to accept the DOJ’s word that “all of the approximately 100 documents isolated by the Government (and ‘papers physically attached to them’) are classified government records,” saying that that is a matter of dispute for the special master to resolve.
“The Court does not find it appropriate to accept the Government’s conclusions on these important and disputed issues without further review by a neutral third party in an expedited and orderly fashion,” Cannon writes. She does, however, “direct the Special Master to prioritize review of the approximately 100 documents marked as classified” in light of the DOJ’s concern about her order hampering its criminal investigation.
Sept. 21 — A three-judge appeals panel unanimously agrees to give Justice Department investigators access to documents seized at Mar-a-Lago. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit’s order also sides with the DOJ’s position that Trump’s lawyers and the special master do not need to review documents that the government has deemed to be classified.
“The United States argues that the district court likely erred in exercising its jurisdiction to enjoin the United States’s use of the classified records in its criminal investigation and to require the United States to submit the marked classified documents to a special master for review,” the court says. “We agree.”
The court questions Trump’s interest in the classified documents. Trump “has not even attempted to show that he has a need to know the information contained in the classified documents,” the appeals court writes. “Nor has he established that the current administration has waived that requirement for these documents. And even if he had, that, in and of itself, would not explain why Plaintiff has an individual interest in the classified documents.”
Oct. 4 — Trump files an application with the U.S. Supreme Court to partially vacate the 11th Circuit ruling. The filing claims that the circuit court lacks the authority to overturn Judge Cannon’s order directing the special master to review classified documents taken from Mar-a-Lago on Aug. 8. “The Eleventh Circuit lacked jurisdiction to review the Special Master Order, which authorized the review of all materials seized from President Trump’s residence, including documents bearing classification markings,” the application says.
The filing, however, does not seek to reinstate Cannon’s order that temporarily blocked Justice Department criminal investigators from accessing the seized documents pending the completion of the special master’s review. It asks only that the Supreme Court vacate the circuit court’s ruling “as to the authority of the Special Master to review documents bearing classification markings.”
Oct. 13 — The Supreme Court issues a one-sentence, unsigned ruling denying Trump’s application for the high court to partially vacate the 11th Circuit ruling.
Oct. 14 — The Justice Department files an appeal with the 11th Circuit court, seeking to reverse Cannon’s order and “end the special master’s review.”
“This Court has already granted the government’s motion to stay that unprecedented order insofar as it relates to the documents bearing classification markings,” the filing says. “The Court should now reverse the order in its entirety.”
Nov. 15 — Trump announces he will run for president in 2024.
Nov. 18 — Attorney General Merrick Garland appoints Jack Smith, a former Justice Department prosecutor, as special counsel to oversee the investigation of Trump’s handling of highly classified documents. Garland says Smith will also oversee the department’s ongoing probe of “whether any person or entity unlawfully interfered with the transfer of power following the 2020 presidential election or the certification of the Electoral College vote held on or about January 6, 2021.”
“Based on recent developments, including the former president’s announcement that he is a candidate for president in the next election, and the sitting president’s stated intention to be a candidate as well, I have concluded that it is in the public interest to appoint a special counsel,” Garland said.
In a statement, Smith says he “will exercise independent judgement and will move the investigations forward expeditiously and thoroughly to whatever outcome the facts and the law dictate.”
Dec. 1 – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit overturns a lower court ruling that granted Trump’s request for a special master. The unanimous decision ends the special master review of documents seized from Mar-a-Lago, and allows the Justice Department criminal investigation to proceed.
“The law is clear,” the judges wrote. “We cannot write a rule that allows any subject of a search warrant to block government investigations after the execution of the warrant. Nor can we write a rule that allows only former presidents to do so. Either approach would be a radical reordering of our caselaw limiting the federal courts’ involvement in criminal investigations.”
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