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Internal memos call into question National Archives narrative to Congress on Trump documents

NARA role with FBI continued well after February 2022 criminal referral, memos suggest.

Published: April 9, 2023 11:29pm

Updated: April 10, 2023 9:57am

For months, the National Archives and Records Administration has insisted it had nothing to do with the federal criminal investigation into memos containing classified markings that were found at former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate since it referred the matter to the FBI in February 2022.

"When NARA identified items marked as classified national security information within the 15 boxes, NARA referred this issue to the DOJ," acting Archivist Debra Wall wrote Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), now the House Intelligence Committee chairman, on Aug. 16. "Since that time, the DOJ has been exclusively responsible for all aspects of this investigation, and NARA has not been involved in the DOJ investigation or any searches that it has conducted."

The claim is important because it has been used by NARA as a reason why it doesn't have to answer any further questions from curious lawmakers. "Accordingly, NARA is unable to provide a briefing or any documents in response to your letter, and we refer you to the DOJ," Wall wrote last summer.

But internal messages, emails and letters — some released in recent days under the Freedom of Information Act — tell a different story that raises questions about the Archives' official timeline in the Trump dispute.

For instance, new internal messages between Archives staff show that a full week after Wall's letter to Congress, a senior NARA official was still seeking data about the FBI probe.

"Need the case number for the FBI review," NARA liaison to the Biden White House John Laster wrote in a text message dated Aug. 23 of last year.

"I think it's LW 2022-070," a colleague texted back. "This is the FBI review of the 15 boxes correct?"

"Correct," Laster responded.

Months earlier, but well after the NARA referral to the FBI, the Archives was deeply involved in the probe when it fielded a request in April 2022 from the Biden White House to facilitate FBI "special access" to 15 boxes of documents Trump had returned to the Archives, some of which contained the classified memos, according to a letter from the Archives to one of Trump's attorneys.

"On April 11, 2022, the White House Counsel's Office — affirming a request from the Department of Justice supported by an FBI letterhead memorandum — formally transmitted a request that NARA provide the FBI access to the 15 boxes for its review within seven days, with the possibility that the FBI might request copies of specific documents following its review of the boxes," the Archives wrote in a May 10, 2022 letter to Trump lawyer Evan Corcoran.

Such documents, released by NARA to the public, clearly show Archives activity well after the criminal referral.

But despite the activity, both the FBI and NARA have continued to maintain the case changed hands and the Archives dropped out as soon as the National Archives Office of Inspector General referred the matter to the FBI for criminal investigation on Feb. 9, 2022.

"NARA received the 15 boxes from President Trump on January 18, 2022, and then discovered that they contained classified national security information," Wall wrote current House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan and current House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer on Oct. 25 of last year.

"Shortly after the discovery, NARA consulted with its Office of Inspector General (OIG), which operates independently of NARA," Wall added. "As DOJ has disclosed publicly in court filings, NARA's OIG subsequently referred the matter to DOJ on February 9, 2022."

In its application for the search warrant used to raid Mar-a-Lago, the FBI likewise cited the February 2022 referral as the trigger for probable cause for its investigation.

"The investigation began as a result of a referral the United States National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) sent to the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) on February 9, 2022," an FBI agent wrote in the affidavit.

A spokesperson for the National Archives did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday.

When Just the News and this reporter first obtained the May 2022 communications between Corcoran and NARA and published them on Aug. 23, 2022, the story's revelation about the special access request from the FBI raised concerns at the highest levels of the Archives, in part because other news outlets were beginning to pick up on it.

"fyi," NARA general counsel Gary Stern wrote Wall, "see query below from Politico, which is following up on John Solomon's story effectively releasing the letter that Deb sent to Trump rep Evan Corcoran in May concerning the DOJ special access request for the 15 boxes. (I've also received calls from AP and the NYTimes.) 

"Solomon also posted this story characterizing the communications between Jonathan Su (WHCO), Corcoran, and me over the DOJ request that led up to Deb's letter (and quoting Jim Jordan and Alan Dershowitz)."

The conflicts between NARA's representations to Congress and its own internal communications are raising concerns.

The conservative public interest law firm America First Legal is preparing a Freedom of Information Act request to force the release of additional communications and records, officials for the group told Just the News.

"The evidence suggests that the ostensibly nonpartisan National Archives and Records Administration misled Congress about the Biden White House's responsibility for the FBI's raid of former President Trump's home," said Reed D. Rubinstein, America First Legal's Senior Counselor and Director of Oversight and Investigations.

"The evidence further suggests that Biden officials in the Executive Office of the President and the Department of Justice unlawfully abused their power and then lied about it to the American people. This government, it seems, acknowledges no limits on its power to harass, intimidate, and silence its political opponents," he added.

And members of Congress are also beginning to dig deeper into the role of the Biden White House, NARA and others in the months after the February 2022 referral.

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