The Justice Department wants to know how a box containing a handful of classified records scattered among copies of presidential schedules turned up at Mar-a-Lago late last year, well after several rounds of searches of the property by federal agents and aides to former President Donald Trump, according to people familiar with the matter.
Investigators working for special counsel Jack Smith in recent weeks have interviewed a Trump aide who copied classified materials found in the box using her phone to put them onto a laptop. After a voluntary interview with the aide, prosecutors subpoenaed the password to the laptop, which she provided, according to one of the sources.
The classified documents contained in the box were discovered in December, after the Justice Department told Trump’s legal team to conduct yet another search for documents at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.
People familiar with the Trump legal team’s efforts to locate documents describe a confusing chain of events that delayed discovery of the box, including having its contents uploaded to the cloud, emailed to a Trump employee, and moved to an offsite location before finally ending up back at a Mar-a-Lago bridal suite that is now Trump’s office – the very place that the FBI had searched just weeks earlier.
Trump’s legal team has acknowledged in recent weeks they turned over to the special counsel the box and a laptop containing its scanned contents. But prosecutors have continued asking why it wasn’t given to the Justice Department earlier, and what if any role or knowledge Trump may have had about its movements, sources said.
The odyssey of the box has been a recent focus of Smith’s investigation into the mishandling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, according to people familiar with the line of questioning from federal prosecutors. The haphazard handling of documents that ended up online, on computers and moved around to multiple locations could further complicate Trump’s case in an investigation with criminal implications.
One person who described the box’s movements and the special counsel’s inquiry into it described federal investigators as suspecting a “shell game with classified documents.” The person said Trump’s daily movements and instructions to staff are a core part of prosecutors’ questions as well.
Tim Parlatore, an attorney for Trump, said in an interview with CNN earlier this month that the aide had not seen the classified markings.
“After we did the search in December and found within this box of thousands that there were a couple of pages that had a little marking at the bottom, which we turned over, after that, we found out that she had scanned the box so that it would be digitized,” Parlatore said. “She had no idea that there was any classification markings on anything. And as soon as we found out about that, we called up the DOJ to let them know and immediately provided them access to it.”
A spokesman for the special counsel’s office declined to comment.
From tennis cottage to bridal suite
In the fall of 2021, a longtime Trump staffer at the White House and Mar-a-Lago initially sent the box to a lower-level Trump aide, who has been employed by the former president since he left office. The staffer wanted copies of presidential schedules in the box to be scanned.
The aide took the box to Mar-a-Lago’s “tennis cottage,” where she worked. No scanning machine was available there for the aide to use, so she turned the documents into scanned files using an Adobe application on her phone, uploading them to a Trump-owned laptop, according to people familiar with the matter.
As she worked through the thousands of pages over several days, she didn’t notice there were classified documents among the presidential records, the people said.
In November 2021, after the contents in the box were scanned, the box was moved to an office in downtown Palm Beach funded by the General Services Administration, the people said.
The box remained there even after Trump’s team gave 15 boxes containing classified and other federal records to the National Archives in January 2022. The Justice Department then subpoenaed for the return of all classified records in Trump’s possession in May 2022, and his lawyers handed over some additional documents to Justice Department investigators who visited Mar-a-Lago and toured the space in an attempt to reclaim more documents in June.
The FBI then searched Mar-a-Lago in August while Trump was at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, retrieving more than a hundred records marked as classified in certain rooms at the club, including a bridal suite converted into Trump’s office and other locations where boxes were kept.
But this particular box was at the Palm Beach office during that search. When Trump returned to Mar-a-Lago last fall, along with his aide, the box was retrieved from the Palm Beach office and brought to the bridal suite at Mar-a-Lago where the aide was now working alongside Trump in a new role, people familiar with the matter said.
Tracking down the box
In November at the behest of the Justice Department, Trump’s legal team hired two people to search four additional locations for classified documents: Bedminster, Trump Tower in New York, a storage unit in Florida and the Palm Beach office where the box had been for nearly a year.
During those searches, two additional classified documents were found in the storage unit, which they handed over to prosecutors.
Trump’s team had hoped their searches in November – and assertions in writing that they’ve scoured Trump’s properties and handed over all classified records – put to rest prosecutors’ concerns.
The Trump lawyers argued that the FBI had already searched Mar-a-Lago in August. But the Justice Department demanded that Trump lawyers also do another search of the property themselves as they threatened to hold Trump in contempt.
During the December search of Mar-a-Lago, the box containing the handful of classified documents intermingled with Trump’s presidential schedules was at last discovered, according to the people familiar with the search efforts.
“When the team found the box, it was initially believed that the FBI had simply missed it during the search warrant. But upon further investigation, the legal team discovered that an aide had moved it as part of her job function,” one source said.
By that point, the box had been moved into a closet in the suite where Trump campaign memorabilia was stored, the people said. Trump’s lawyers then turned over the box to the Justice Department.
In recent weeks, prosecutors secured grand jury testimony from the two people hired to search Trump’s properties last fall and have been pursuing answers from his lawyers.
CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and Kristen Holmes contributed to this report