Federal prosecutors investigating Donald Trump’s retention of national security material were examining evidence within weeks of the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago last year that he might have handled classified documents at his Bedminster club in New Jersey, according to two people close to the matter.
The indications of classified documents at Bedminster so alarmed prosecutors that they focused part of the investigation on whether Trump might have transported the materials or disclosed their contents there in addition to refusing to return them to the government, the people said.
Trump was charged this month with retaining national defense information and obstruction of justice, in an indictment that also notably alleged that Trump discussed a military plan to attack Iran and waved a classified map of Afghanistan in front of a staffer in 2021 at the New Jersey property.
The suspicion that Trump travelled with classified documents between Mar-a-Lago, his winter residence, and Bedminster, his summer residence, started early in the criminal investigation that intensified after the FBI search and culminated in Trump being accused of violating the Espionage Act.
A justice department spokesperson declined to comment.
Within weeks of the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, the justice department sought to act on the indications of classified documents at Bedminster when it told the Trump legal team that prosecutors believed the former president still possessed classified materials, the people said.
The message in the letter, which became a formal court motion filed under seal weeks later, was clear: arrange for new searches of all of the Trump properties because, as of that time, the only place that had been combed for classified documents was the Mar-a-Lago resort.
Whether to acquiesce with the request split the Trump legal team. Trump in-house counsel Boris Epshteyn and Trump lawyer Chris Kise were uneasy about being ordered around by the government, while the other Trump lawyers Tim Parlatore and Jim Trusty suggested a cooperative approach.
The legal team ultimately decided on working with the justice department and, in one exchange, asked prosecutors which Trump properties and where at the Trump properties they wanted them to search.
The prosecutors were noncommittal and told the Trump legal team that they were not in the business of providing specific locations because they might not know about all of the properties in the former president’s control. But, notably, they did specifically request a new search of Bedminster.
Bedminster had not previously been searched after Trump received a subpoena last May for any classified-marked documents because it had been issued to the Trump political office, which is registered at Mar-a-Lago and a building in Palm Beach – not the golf club in New Jersey.
(The reason why the subpoena was issued to the Trump political office was not certain, though the justice department typically issues subpoenas to organizations because of the fifth amendment act of production doctrine that protects individuals from being compelled to turn over contraband.)
But when the new searches of the Trump properties by contractors took place, they found no classified documents at Bedminster, according to people familiar with what they certified to the then chief US judge in Washington, Beryl Howell, who was overseeing the grand jury litigation.
The results of the Bedminster search left prosecutors uneasy given the earlier evidence about indications of classified documents at the club, the people said, and prompted them to ask the Trump team for a custodian of records to attest that no further documents remained in Trump’s possession.
It was when the Trump legal team declined to make a custodian available – principally because Trump did not have one and suggested instead that Parlatore could testify to the grand jury about the new searches of the Trump properties – that prosecutors sought contempt proceedings, the people said.
The absence of classified documents at Bedminster led prosecutors to suspect that Trump treated it like a vacation home, where he took boxes of things away from Mar-a-Lago at the start of the summer, and then returned with all of his things to Mar-a-Lago at the end of the season, the people said.
Though it remains uncertain when exactly prosecutors learned about the audio tape of Trump discussing the military plan to attack Iran in July 2021 at Bedminster, their suspicions were confirmed by March when they subpoenaed Trump aide Margo Martin, who made the recording, to confirm its authenticity.