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DOJ reveals more evidence of obstruction in Mar-a-Lago probe

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Justice Department is pushing back hard against what it calls baseless accusations from former President Donald Trump.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah, his supporters have been pressing for more explanations of an FBI search of Trump's home, and the Justice Department obliged. Prosecutors provided a 36-page court filing, which details efforts to hide sensitive documents that belong to the United States. The Justice Department says Trump's lawyers signed a sworn statement claiming Trump had given up all the documents, but numerous sources told the FBI otherwise. And the search showed the sources were correct. The court filing includes a photo showing top-secret documents on the floor at Mar-a-Lago, which seem to have been kept with Trump's collection of framed magazine covers.

FADEL: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following the story, and she's here now to talk more about it. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So, Carrie, you were up late waiting for this court filing from the Justice Department. We know prosecutors are looking for violations of laws, including mishandling of classified information and obstruction of justice. What new details did they provide?

JOHNSON: There's important and striking new information about obstruction of justice. We knew there was a back-and-forth between Trump and the National Archives, and Trump and the Justice Department, for many months. But DOJ says Trump lawyers attested they did a diligent search in Florida this summer. Prosecutors say they later learned that was not the case. They have evidence that some materials were removed from the storage room at Mar-a-Lago, along with other efforts to obstruct the probe despite the subpoena. DOJ says that casts some serious doubt on Trump's claims that he was cooperating. And they say the papers the FBI found were mixed in with all kinds of personal effects. They shared that photo of secret documents on the carpet at Mar-a-Lago next to a framed cover of Time magazine.

FADEL: Now, this all came out as part of a legal fight over whether to appoint a special master to review these papers. What's the Justice Department saying about that?

JOHNSON: The federal prosecutors say there's no reason for the judge to appoint an independent special master to review these documents from the search. They say there's no legal basis for that move. Trump is the former president, and the law clearly states he does not control these records. Maybe more important, some of these documents are top-secret and higher-level classification. DOJ says it's essential for them and the intelligence community to review the papers and assess risks to national security since they were stored for more than a year at this Florida resort. We're talking about papers that are so classified that DOJ says some of its own prosecutors and agents needed higher security clearances just to review these documents.

FADEL: Now, Trump's allies have argued, well, he had the authority to declassify these documents. How will that factor in to the courtroom action this week?

JOHNSON: Yeah, Trump's lawyers and a former Pentagon aide to Trump, Kash Patel, have said Trump had the power to declassify papers. But the Justice Department in this filing says the Trump legal team never told them that happened. And in fact, the lawyers acted this summer as if it didn't happen, as if there were no declassification of these papers.

FADEL: Now, we've learned a lot more about this investigation, in part because Trump was asking for an independent review. What are the next steps now?

JOHNSON: Trump's going to get a chance to respond. Then both sides are due in court in Florida for a hearing Thursday. DOJ made very clear it thinks this request for a special master has no legal basis, but the judge signaled over the weekend she might be inclined to bring in a special master. We're going to find out later this week if these court papers have changed her mind.

FADEL: NPR's Carrie Johnson, thanks.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.