Investigation builds on FBI’s discovery of empty folders in Mar-a-Lago

Among the materials allegedly seized from former President Trump’s home were numerous empty folders that once contained classified information or information destined to be returned to the military, raising questions about the consequences of the possible mishandling of records and whether they have been recovered since.

In a Justice Department inventory unsealed by a judge Friday, the administration indicated that interspersed with Trump’s personal belongings were 48 empty folders with classified banners, as well as an additional 42 empty folders labeled “back to staff secretary/ military assistant,” according to the statement.

Most were found in Trump’s office, rather than Mar-a-Lago’s storage room.

It’s not clear if the materials the folders ever contain are elsewhere in the boxes of recovered evidence, but experts say the series of questions the detail raises argues in favor of allowing the Department of Justice to continue its investigation. even as Trump tries to slow his progress. .

“The ideal scenario that this would describe is that the empty folders are actually for the records that are in the boxes elsewhere – that someone just didn’t keep them in the folder the way they were meant to be, so they’re not actually somewhere in the folder. wild,” said Kel McClanahan, executive director of National Security Counselors, a not-for-profit law firm that specializes in national security law.

“The least optimistic scenario is that they are nowhere to be found because they are already with someone else.”

The inventory was given to U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon shortly before she heard arguments from Trump’s legal team asking for the FBI’s investigation to be suspended so that a special third-party master could review the evidence to protect what it said. could be their privileged material. The DOJ has argued that such a move is unnecessary, as its own team of associates not assigned to the case has already reviewed the evidence for privileged material.

In addition to the blank folders, Friday’s inventory broadly lists the other types of documents found in Trump’s office in the tranche of more than 100 recovered classified records: three documents marked confidential, 17 documents marked secret, and seven documents marked as top secret.

Larry Pfeiffer, who previously served as senior director of the White House Situation Room and chief of staff for the CIA, said the classified document tracking system should allow investigators to determine what information should be in the folders. and to determine if it is still present. on sight.

But he expressed concern that the fact that they even ended up in Mar-a-Lago could mean that proper tracking — even with national security officials in the White House — may not have been taken seriously.

“To me it sounds like there was some horrific systemic breakdown in those processes, No. 1, or those people just felt completely intimidated by Trump and the people around him. Or there were people who worked completely around the system — that documents flowed in and out of the Oval and into the residence without ever going through this tracking process,” Pfeiffer told The Hill.

“I think it’s possible it was a mistake. I think it’s possible it was folders with the documents that were already found. But I’m worried it could be folders with other documents and now the mystery is true are the other documents? And that’s the scary part.”

This also applies to the materials that have expressly stated that they must be returned to the military.

“Everything in the folder should have been returned. The folder there suggests not,’ said Pfeiffer.

The inventory list states that the archives were found mixed up with clothing, books and other personal effects, as well as about 10,000 presidential records that should probably be kept by the National Archives.

That they were kept with Trump’s assets — and in some cases in his office — could be an important detail for the DOJ, a detail they referenced in their file. The department noted that “any evidence — including the nature and manner in which they were stored” — will inform their investigation.

“The blending of all these things shows that there was no care given to this data at a few different points in the process because at least one of the two things happened to lead to this scenario,” said McClanahan, the national security attorney. .

“No. 1. While in office, he or his staff randomly mixed all this classified and unclassified material into boxes, which showed that they were not handling it well in the office. Or two, after he got home, he started rummaging through the boxes and taking things in and out, which would show that there was a clear awareness and involvement of the classified nature of this material. I think it will probably be a mix of the two,” he added.

The confusion surrounding the documents adds an extra dimension to the special master case. Cannon noted that she would consider whether to allow the intelligence community to continue assessing the potential national security implications associated with the mishandling of material, including how to protect resources and methods. The assessment is led by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

“I don’t think finding empty folders gives it any more urgency than it already deserves. The fact that some of our government’s most sensitive documents were in the storage rooms of a Florida golf resort, mixed with a lot of other things, shows that people [without clearances] physical access to … is frightening,” Pfeiffer said.

“The urgency is there regardless of whether empty folders are found or not. And so having a special master now could potentially put an end to the damage assessment/risk assessment that the ODNI does, that would be a further delay that we shouldn’t have to put up with.”

Others warn that there is no good way to block the work of the Justice Department while the intelligence community can make its own assessment of the possible consequences.

“The FBI’s investigation and the Intelligence Community (IC) assessments are inextricably intertwined from a counterintelligence perspective,” Brian Greer, a former CIA attorney, told The Hill by email.

“In order to assess the risks, it is important that the IC knows who has access to a particular document, and they can only get that from the FBI. But if the court forbids the FBI from accessing certain classified documents because they may be subject to an executive privilege claim, that process will go awry.”

Cannon immediately declined to rule on the matter when both sides presented their arguments on Thursday, but McClanahan said granting Trump’s request could ultimately backfire on a former president who often insists he was treated unfairly.

He noted that a special master could easily conclude that the FBI has not obtained material to be protected by attorney-client or executive privileges, as Trump claims.

“He won’t be able to say, ‘The DOJ privilege review team wrongly decided,’ he will have to say, ‘The DOJ privilege review team, and the subject matter expert I asked for, and a federal judge wrongly decided,’” said McClanahan.

“And in an area like this where there isn’t much room for him to be right — that’s a very risky move.”

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