Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department was aware that classified documents had been found on former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property, but had not explicitly confirmed that a federal investigation on the matter was ongoing.
“[T]The National Archives informed the Department of Justice and contacted them,” Garland said at a press conference on Tuesday. “And we will do what we always do in these circumstances: look at the facts and the law and go from there. ”
Archivist David Ferriero informed members of Congress on Friday that some of the contents of 15 boxes of presidential records from the Florida resort town were “marked as classified national security information.” Ferriero said the National Archives has asked Trump’s representatives to continue searching for more documents.
“It would be a flagrant break with a long line of precedents not to even open an investigation,” said David Laufman, a former DOJ official who oversaw investigations into the mishandling of classified information.
Several former government officials have been charged with unauthorized removal or withholding of documents, from Central Intelligence Agency director David Petraeus to national security adviser Sandy Berger.
Legal experts said that because presidents typically have broad authority over decisions about what is considered classified, any possible criminal prosecution of a former president could pose more serious hurdles.
But obstacles that might apply to a former president may not apply to others who helped pack, carry and open the boxes.
Trump, for his part, issued a statement denouncing the controversy as partisan: “The National Archives did not ‘find anything’, they received, upon request, presidential records through an ordinary, routine process for ensure the preservation of my legacy and in accordance with the Presidential Archives Act.”
“If it was anyone other than ‘Trump,’ there would be no story here,” Trump said.
The controversy once again puts Biden’s Justice Department in the awkward position of deciding whether to investigate a former president, in a turbulent political environment.
In a normal case, a few federal prosecutors and FBI agents would be tasked with developing a timeline of events and a list of people involved in transporting the documents from Washington to Florida. The DOJ’s decision could become clearer in the coming weeks, if federal agents start contacting witnesses and prosecutors seek warrants to search the email accounts of people who worked closely with Trump in the White House.