A legal back-and-forth produced a straightforward narrative of how Mr. Trump and his lawyers repeatedly dodged the government’s attempts to recover sensitive documents for more than a year.
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By Alan Feuer and Glenn Thrush
Former President Donald J. Trump may have thought that he was playing offense when he asked a federal judge last week for an independent review of documents seized from his residence in Florida — a move that, at best, could delay but not derail an investigation into his handling of the records.
But on Tuesday night, the Justice Department used a routine court filing in the matter to initiate a blistering counteroffensive that disclosed new evidence that Mr. Trump and his legal team may have interfered with the inquiry.
In the filing, in Federal District Court for the Southern District of Florida, department officials revealed more details about the classified materials that Mr. Trump had taken from the White House, including a remarkable photograph of several of them arrayed on the floor of Mar-a-Lago, his home and private club in Florida. In what read at times like a road map for a potential prosecution down the road, the filing also laid out evidence that Mr. Trump and his lawyers may have obstructed justice.
It was as if Mr. Trump, seeming not to fully grasp the potential hazards of his modest legal move, cracked open a door, allowing the Justice Department to push past him and seize the initiative.
“The Trump team got more than they bargained for,” said Preet Bharara, a former U.S. attorney in Manhattan and a longtime critic of Mr. Trump. “In response to a thin and tardy special master motion, D.O.J. was given the opportunity to be expansive.”
Federal prosecutors do not appear to be close to a decision about whether to charge Mr. Trump or anyone else in the documents case. Nor is it yet clear what harm, if any, to national security was done by Mr. Trump’s decision to keep the classified documents at his beachfront club — or even what specific subjects they covered.
Mr. Trump escaped the Russia investigation led by the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III without facing obstruction charges, covered at the time by a Justice Department legal memo that guides against indicting a sitting president. But bringing a new case focused on the documents found at Mar-a-Lago would also be politically fraught, given that Mr. Trump seems to be planning another run for the White House.
Still, the Justice Department’s objection to Mr. Trump’s request for a special master to review the retrieved material was nothing if not expansive. Unfolding over 36 pages, it combined complicated legal arguments with an easy-to-read narrative of how, in the course of more than a year, Mr. Trump and his lawyers repeatedly dodged the government’s attempts to get the documents back.
Covering its final page was what Mr. Bharara called “an extra proverbial thousand words”: an image of five yellow folders marked “Top Secret,” and a red one labeled “Secret,” lying on the ground beside a box of magazine covers.
The image, which seemed to be a standard evidence photo, was the sort of thing the government collects all the time for use at possible trials. But because Mr. Trump and his lawyers made disputed statements about their handling of the records, it gave the Justice Department an opportunity to publicize the photo, which has now appeared repeatedly on TV news.
On Wednesday, going back on the offensive, Mr. Trump attacked the image.
“Terrible the way the FBI, during the Raid on Mar-a-Lago, threw documents haphazardly all over the floor,” he wrote on his social media platform. He went to say, in a just-asking sort of way: “(Perhaps pretending it was me that did it!)”
Later that same evening, Mr. Trump’s lawyers angrily renewed their call for a special master in the case, telling a federal judge that Mr. Trump had merely possessed “his own presidential records.” In an 18-page filing, the lawyers suggested that by undertaking what they called an “unprecedented, unnecessary and legally unsupported raid” on Mar-a-Lago, the Justice Department was “criminalizing a former president’s possession of personal and presidential records in a secure setting.”
More on the Trump Documents Inquiry
Taken at face value, Mr. Trump’s request for a special master was an effort to claw back presidential records that he and his lawyers contended were protected by executive privilege. But if it is successful, it could also slow down the Justice Department’s inquiry into whether he had wrongfully kept the material in the first place and subsequently interfered with the investigation.
The Justice Department rebutted the first claim Tuesday night by pointing out that Mr. Trump, as a former president, did not have the power to assert executive privilege over the documents when federal prosecutors — current members of the executive branch — had a court-ordered warrant to obtain them. The brief also noted that a delay for a special master review would be unnecessary given prosecutors had already completed their own review.
As is frequently the case with Mr. Trump, the papers his legal team filed to the judge overseeing the matter, Aileen M. Cannon, did more than just make legal arguments. They often drifted into irrelevant subjects (the former president’s polling numbers) or made extraneous complaints (such as one about “farcical Russian collusion claims.”)
While Mr. Trump’s lawyers have sought to portray the former president as the harried victim of government persecution, they have also claimed that he cooperated fully with the government’s attempts to get the documents back.
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