Trump lawyers say Mar-a-Lago boxes contained foreign leader briefings | Donald Trump

Donald Trump’s lawyers in the Mar-a-Lago documents investigation found the 15 boxes the former president returned to the National Archives a year after the end of his presidency mostly contained briefings for calls with foreign leaders, according to a new letter they sent to Congress.

The majority of the letter – seen by the Guardian and earlier reported by CNN – served to characterize Trump’s retention of classified-marked documents as inadvertent, and due to White House staffers sweeping all documents into boxes during a chaotic departure at the end of the administration.

But the 10-page letter that was sent to the House and Senate intelligence committees also revealed the order in which the documents were placed, as well as their contents, inside 15 boxes the National Archives struggled to retrieve for months and precipitated the criminal investigation.

The investigation into Trump’s potential retention of national defense information and obstruction of justice led by special counsel Jack Smith is ongoing, though it may be near its end given prosecutors have subpoenaed almost everyone who conceivably could have knowledge of the matter.

Trump’s two main lawyers involved in the documents investigation – Tim Parlatore and Jim Trusty – in late December last year formally asked the National Archives for access to the 15 boxes that Trump had returned through the relevant provision in the Presidential Records Act.

The request was granted several weeks later, and Parlatore and Trusty went to one of the top floors in the main National Archives building overlooking the National Mall and started going through the boxes, which they found preserved just as when Trump had sent them up from his Mar-a-Lago resort.

The boxes, according to the letter, contained a mixture of documents from the White House that were grouped by date and included newspapers, magazines, notes, letters and daily presidential schedules.

Where there had been classified documents – which was what prompted the National Archives to first alert the justice department to start an investigation last year – officials had inserted placeholder pages that described the document that had been removed, the letter said.

“That allowed Parlatore and Trusty to discern what the documents were, as well as what other materials in the boxes were in proximity … The vast majority of placeholder inserts refer to briefings for phone calls with foreign leaders that were located near the schedule for those calls.”

The letter then described the ensuing criminal investigation as “misguided” because, in their eyes, the way the boxes were packed was indicative of White House staff pulling all documents into the boxes during a chaotic “pack-out” process at the end of the Trump administration.

Left unsaid was that the criminal investigation has evolved since the initial referral.

The obstruction part of the investigation is centered on Trump’s incomplete compliance with a subpoena last May that demanded the return of any classified-marked documents in his possession. That was after documents he returned earlier to the National Archives included 200 that were classified.

Last June, Corcoran searched Mar-a-Lago and produced about 30 documents with classified markings to the justice department, and had another Trump lawyer, Christina Bobb, sign a certification that attested to compliance with the subpoena “based on the information provided to me”.

But the justice department developed evidence that more documents that were marked as classified remained at the resort, according to court filings, and when the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago in August they found 101 documents marked as classified in a storage room and in Trump’s office.

Last month, Corcoran was ordered by a senior US judge to testify and hand over his notes to the grand jury hearing evidence in the case, piercing his attorney-client privilege protections through the crime-fraud exception because Trump might have used his advice in furtherance of a crime.

The special counsel is also investigating whether Trump violated the Espionage Act, and prosecutors have recently asked witnesses whether Trump ever showed a map to donors or a book author, a person familiar with the matter said.

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