What's going on with the Trump DOJ investigation?

There currently are a variety of lawsuits against former President Trump, with Josh Robin of Spectrum News describing them as centering around his attempts to overthrow election results in Georgia, potential misrepresentation of property values in New York, potential mishandling of White House documents in his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida, and potential connections to the January 6 Capitol attack. Currently, the most notable is the Mar-a-Lago case, which has been ongoing since February 2022.

At the end of his presidency, like all presidents before him, former President Trump was supposed to turn over relevant documents to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for record-keeping purposes. In May 2021, Marshall Cohen of CNN reports NARA realized their records of the Trump presidency were incomplete, and contacted Trump’s team over a set of missing documents that included correspondence between President Trump and Kim Jong-Un, as well as the infamous “Sharpie-gate” map from Hurricane Dorian. The negotiations to return them spanned months, finally ending in 15 boxes being picked up from the Mar-a-Lago estate in January 2022.

Also in true Trump fashion, there was no way these documents could be returned in mint condition. Of the documents that were returned, many were not in pristine condition. Gabby Orr of CNN reports on Trump’s problematic habit of ripping up documents he was finished reading or particularly upset by, with little regard for whether the documents were old tweet drafts or important correspondence that should be preserved. Despite being asked by his chiefs of staff to stop, Trump continued this practice throughout his presidency, and Cohen reports that some of the Mar-a-Lago documents were indeed returned in pieces. Unfortunately, some of these pieces became a puzzle that NARA officials were unable to solve, as some documents could not be reconstructed.

However, this was not where the drama ended. With the records retrieved, the court battle over their handling had just begun. By February, the DOJ was involved, with Cohen reporting the official charges centering around overall mishandling of confidential material, including Trump’s destructive tendencies, the lack of preservation of social media messages and drafts, and transport of documents post-presidency to the Mar-a-Lago estate.

The total returned was 15 boxes, with more than 100 classified documents spanning over 700 pages.

Or it would be the total — if those were all the boxes stored at Mar-a-Lago. Alison Durkee of Forbes explained how eventually NARA realized some documents were not returned, serving a subpoena for additional documents in June and eventually leading to the FBI executing a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago in August when Trump’s attorneys did not turn over remaining documents.

The new tally is now over 11,000 non-classified documents and 100 classified ones, according to Devlin Barrett of the Washington Post. Twenty-seven of such classified documents, Durkee notes, were not found in a secure storage room, and were instead sitting in Trump’s office.

The part for the history books? This was the “first time in American history that a former president’s home was searched as part of a criminal investigation,” according to CNN. After a media clash, part of the search warrant was unsealed for transparency, revealing parts of the criminal charges themselves: potential violations of the Espionage Act, obstruction of justice, and criminal handling of government records.

This update ends on the next point of contention between the DOJ and Trump representatives — how third parties are allowed to get involved. Cohen reports how Trump filed a lawsuit asking for a third party attorney known as a “special master” to determine which documents fall under attorney-client or executive privilege, sparking more debate as Judge Cannon grants this request. With Barrett confirming five days ago that Raymond Dearie, a former New York chief federal judge, is taking on the role of “special master,” the government is now pushing that classified documents should not be included in the materials reviewed by Dearie, citing “national security risks” of revealing documents only permitted to a “small circle of top government officials.” Such classified documents would have no possibility of falling under privilege because “classified documents, by definition, are the property of the federal government.”

Of course, Barrett said, Judge Cannon rejects these arguments, claiming the classified status of these documents is up for debate despite lack of evidence from Trump’s lawyers proving otherwise.

On Friday, Sept. 16, the Guardian reported that the DOJ appealed Cannon’s investigation hold, as this appointment of a “special master” will significantly delay the FBI’s ability to access the seized record to determine whether criminal charges apply. Such access is necessary for the investigation to continue, especially with the dozens of empty classified folders found in the estate.

The results of the appeal, and of the overall investigation have yet to be determined. This Tuesday, when “special master” Dearie has his preliminary conference with Trump lawyers and the DOJ.