Washington — Lawyers for former President Donald Trump sent a letter to Congress on Wednesday urging the Justice Department to “stand down” in its investigation into the former president’s handling of sensitive records after he left the White House, according to a copy of the letter reviewed by CBS News.
The correspondence — from attorneys Timothy Parlatorre, Jim Trusty, John Rowley and Linsdey Halligan — offers a possible preview of the Trump team’s defense of the former president as he faces the possibility of criminal prosecution by special counsel Jack Smith after documents with classified markings from Trump’s time in office were recovered at his Florida residence.
The letter portrays a hasty transition from the White House after the 2020 election amid Trump’s unproven claims of election fraud in which “White House staff simply swept all documents from the President’s desk and other areas into boxes” that were then transported to Florida.
According to the letter, earlier this year Parlatore and Trusty were given access to the initial 15 boxes of records and documents sent from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort to the National Archives in January 2022. Archived officials ultimately uncovered documents with classified markings, prompting a referral to the Justice Department.
The lawyers’ search of those boxes revealed briefings for phone calls with foreign leaders were likely interspersed with “newspapers, magazines, notes, letters, and daily schedules,” the letter said. Staff from the National Archives had replaced the potentially classified records with placeholder inserts that described their contents. The specific contents of the 15 boxes, including the potential notes from calls with foreign leaders, had not been previously reported before the letter was sent to Congress.
News of the letter was first reported by CNN.
But the letter neither addresses why the attorneys were given access to the records or why the Trump legal team was able to look through the 33 boxes of additional records taken from Mar-a-Lago by the FBI after the execution of a search warrant last August. That court-authorized search yielded an additional 103 documents with classified markings, according to the Justice Department.
The attorneys lay the blame for the transfer of the classified documents not on their client, but on “inconsistent” White House practices for handling sensitive records. They accuse federal investigators of going outside the norms by shutting down what they describe were cooperative talks in order to put Trump on the defensive.
“Any doubts that the presence of marked documents in the boxes was the result of White House institutional processes, rather than intentional decisions by President Trump, should have been dispelled by the recent discovery of marked documents at the residences of President Biden and Vice President Pence,” the letter argues, pointing to recent discoveries that both President Joe Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence notified the Justice Department that they, too, had uncovered documents with classified markings from their tenures as vice president.
“All indications are that the presence of marked documents at Mar-a-Lago was the result of haphazard records keeping and packing by White House staff and GSA,” the lawyers wrote, “President Trump has directed us to immediately notify DOJ of the discovery of marked documents at Mar-a-Largo and we have faithfully done so.”
The lawyers point out that they are not making any representations as to whether the documents with classified markings were in fact classified and allege the Justice Department has not given them any update on their status. Trump has previously argued he declassified the documents, though he has never offered any proof of doing so.
A spokesman for the special counsel’s office declined to comment.
The attorneys’ letter to Congress excludes certain details from the federal probe into Trump’s handling of potentially sensitive records, including that the Justice Department said it is investigating the potential obstruction of federal investigators as they attempted to recover the potentially classified documents.
Last year, a source familiar with the matter told CBS News that federal investigators questioned a Mar-a-Lago aide who said he moved boxes of documents at the behest of the former president. Investigators subpoenaed security camera footage in Mar-a-Lago, which contributed to their concern that the investigation was being obstructed.
And last month, Trump’s attorney, Evan Corcoran, was compelled to answer questions about communications with his client after an appeals court enforced a Justice Department subpoena for his testimony.
Corcoran no longer represents Trump in the documents matter, sources tell CBS News, and he is not listed on the letter sent to Congress on Wednesday. But he is still representing the former president in special counsel Jack Smith’s probe into the events surrounding the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol attack and efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
Trump’s attorneys accused Justice Department officials of being “misguided” and “eager to criminalize this document dispute with NARA,” later alleging that the Biden and Pence documents cases — which so far do not seem to include concerns of obstruction after the two ment acted cooperatively — were handled differently.
The former president’s legal team conducted subsequent searches at Trump properties, according to the letter, and sources familiar with the matter told CBS News a small number of additional documents with classified markings were recovered.
The attorneys criticized the Justice Department and special counsel’s work on the document case as “antithetical to the principles of a fair and impartial search for the truth” and urged Congress to instead try to come up with effective procedures for handling classified documents in the White House.
“The stakeholders to these matters should set aside political differences and work together to remediate this issue and help to enhance our national security in the process,” they wrote.
It would be unusual for lawmakers to attempt to influence a federal investigation, but the letter sent on Wednesday did offer House Republicans further material for their efforts to discredit the Trump probes as political.