The FBI investigation into top-secret government information discovered at Mar-a-Lago is zeroing in on the question of whether former US president Donald Trump's team criminally obstructed the probe.
A new document alleges that government records had been concealed and removed and that law enforcement officials were misled about what was still there.
The allegation does not necessarily mean Trump or anyone else will ultimately face charges. But it could pose the most direct legal threat to Trump and those in his orbit, in part because the Justice Department has historically regarded obstruction as an aggravating factor that tilts in favour of bringing criminal charges involving the mishandling of classified information.
"It goes to the heart of trying to suborn the very integrity of our criminal justice system," said David Laufman, who once oversaw the same Justice Department counterintelligence section now responsible for the Mar-a-Lago investigation.
The latest Justice Department motion in the case is focused less on the removal last year of classified information from the White House to Mar-a-Lago and more on the events of this past spring and summer.
That's when law enforcement officials tried — unsuccessfully — to get all documents back and were assured, falsely, that everything had been accounted for after a "diligent search."
The Justice Department issued a subpoena in May for the records, and officials visited Mar-a-Lago on June 3 to collect them. When they got there they were handed by a Trump lawyer a single envelope, double-wrapped in tape containing documents.
A custodian for the records presented a sworn certification to the officials saying that "any and all responsive documents" to the subpoena had been located. A Trump lawyer said that all records that had come from the White House had been held in one location — a storage room — and there were none in any private space or other spot at the house.
But the FBI came to doubt the truth of those statements and obtained a search warrant to return on August 8.
The US Justice Department has since released a photo of a trove of secret and top secret documents agents found, described as "harrowing" by the former president's niece Mary Trump, a vocal critic of her uncle.
Officials had "developed evidence that government records were likely concealed and removed from the Storage Room and that efforts were likely taken to obstruct the government's investigation," the new Justice Department filing says.
In their August search, agents found classified documents not only in the storage room but also in the former president's office — including three classified documents found not in boxes but in office desks, according to the Justice Department. In some instances, the agents and lawyers conducting the review of seized documents required additional clearances since the material was so highly classified.
"That the FBI, in a matter of hours, recovered twice as many documents with classification markings as the 'diligent search' that the former president's counsel and other representatives had weeks to perform calls into serious question the representations made in the June 3 certification and casts doubt on the extent of cooperation in this matter," the document states.
The Justice Department has stated in court filings that, besides investigating crimes related to the mishandling of national defence information and other documents, it is also looking into whether anyone committed obstruction.
It is not clear from the filing how much of that inquiry might centre on Trump, who has repeatedly insisted that his team was cooperative with the FBI, versus any of his lawyers or representatives involved in making the representations to the department.
Obstruction matters because it is one of the factors investigators look for in weighing whether to bring charges. For instance, in his July 2016 announcement that the FBI would not be recommending criminal charges against Hillary Clinton in an investigation involving handling of her emails, FBI Director James Comey cited the absence of obstruction as one of the reasons.
According to a report this morning in Bloomberg, federal prosecutors are likely to wait until after the November mid-term elections to announce any charges against Donald Trump, if they determine he broke laws.
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