Washington – An official working for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) warned Donald Trump’s legal team in May 2021 that the Archives was missing numerous records from the Trump White House that urgently needed to be returned, according to a letter released by the Archives on Monday following a Freedom of Information Act request.
On May 6, 2021, NARA general counsel Gary Stern wrote to a group of Trump attorneys, including Patrick Philbin and Michael Purpura, informing them that “roughly two dozen boxes of original Presidential records” from Trump’s time in office that were once kept in the White House residence had yet to be returned to the Archives.
Other missing records included an “original correspondence” between Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and a letter then-president Barack Obama left for Trump during the 2017 presidential transition – a White House tradition – according to the letter.
Trump told New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman in an interview for her upcoming book “Confidence Man” that he has “great things” from his time at the White House, including the Kim letters, according to audio posted on CNN. When Haberman asked specifically about the Kim letters, Trump said “no, I think that has the … I think that’s in the archives, but most of it is in the Archives. But the Kim Jong Un letters, we have incredible things. I have incredible letters with other leaders.”
“We know things were very chaotic, as they always are in the course of a one-term transition,” Stern wrote, “But it is absolutely necessary that we obtain and account for all original Presidential records.”
The letter stated that Trump’s former White House Counsel, Pat Cipollone, had made a determination that the records in question should be given to NARA in the final days of the Trump administration.
Stern’s letter was also addressed to Scott Gast, a Washington, D.C. attorney who, like Philbin, served as deputy White House counsel. Stern wrote that NARA had already worked with Gast on “capturing Presidential records on social media accounts,” so they were turning to him and his former colleagues for additional assistance.
Philbin, Purpura, and Gast did not immediately respond to CBS News’ request for comment. The former president has consistently maintained he did nothing wrong and he accused the NARA of being a “radical left group of people.” He told Fox News last month that “when you send documents over there, I would say there’s a very good chance that a lot of those documents will never be seen again.”
The newly-released correspondence sheds light on the Archives’ efforts to fully recover what is said were missing White House records from Trump’s team before ultimately referring the matter to the Justice Department for investigation. What followed the correspondence was a nearly 15-month tug-of-war between the Archives, Trump, and federal prosecutors that culminated in the Aug. 8 execution of a federal search warrant on Trump’s Florida home.
Despite the Archives’ May 2021 advisory that approximately 24 boxes of records from the Trump White House were outstanding, it was not until Jan. 18, 2022, that only 15 boxes were recovered from Trump’s Florida residence.
“In mid-January 2022, NARA arranged for the transport from the Trump Mar-a-Lago property in Florida to the National Archives of 15 boxes that contained Presidential records, following discussions with President Trump’s representatives in 2021,” the Archives said in a statement weeks later, “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 matter of the missing records was referred to the Justice Department for investigation in February and according to NARA, the 15 boxes initially collected from Mar-a-Lago were given to the FBI by the Archives and President Biden in May, overruling numerous Trump objections.
On May 11, 2022, a Ggrand jJury issued a subpoena “seeking documents bearing classification markings” in Trump’s possession at Mar-a-Lago as part of the FBI’s investigation into the alleged mishandling of the documents. By June, investigators had collected even more records and a Trump representative from Trump allegedly signed a statement claiming that all classified materials had been removed from Mar-a-Lago.
Prosecutors revealed in a court filing that the FBI later developed evidence that its their investigation might have been obstructed after records in question were “likely concealed and removed from” their storage space. And by Aug. 5,2022, almost 15 months after Stern’s’ May 2021 letter, the FBI obtained a court-authorized search warrant to seize any relevant property from Mar-a-Lago connected to the probe to be executed three days later.
The warrant yielded 33 boxes of material and records, including what the DOJ says are over 100 documents with classified markings and 48 empty folders marked with classified banners.
Prosecutors have said in court documents and hearings that they are now in the midst of a national security investigation.
The Archives said Friday that it still believes records from the Trump White House are missing. In a letter to the chair of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, acting Archivist of the United States Debra Steidel Wall wrote, “While there is no easy way to establish absolute accountability, we do know that we do not have custody of everything we should.” She specifically pointed to what NARA says are former officials who used unofficial email accounts to conduct government business without forwarding or copying the correspondence to their government addresses. In one notable case, the Justice Department has sued Trump advisor Peter Navarro to recover emails from his time in the White Houze. Navarro has denied wrongdoing.
“With respect to the…issue concerning whether former President Trump has surrendered all presidential records,” Wall wrote, “we respectfully refer you to the Department of Justice in light of its ongoing investigation.”