National Archives wanted to share classified docs from Mar-a-Lago with FBI and intel community for damage assessment months ago

The National Archives wanted to share classified documents from Mar-a-Lago, seen here on August 10, with the intelligence community for damage assessment months ago.

By Tierney Sneed, Evan Perez, Jamie Gangel and Kristen Holmes, CNN

(CNN) -- The National Archives told former President Donald Trump's legal team in May that it was sharing hundreds of pages of classified material it had retrieved in January with the FBI and other entities in the intelligence community so that an assessment could be done on potential damage from how the classified documents had been handled, according to a newly released letter.

More than 100 documents classified documents, comprising more than 700 pages, were retrieved by the Archives from Mar-a-Lago in an initial batch of 15 boxes that were transported in January, according to the letter released Monday night.

The documents included materials marked as Sensitive Compartmented Information, meaning they must be viewed in secure government facility, and Special Access Program, a classification that significantly limits who can access the information, the Archives said.

The full text of the letter was posted late Monday to a website run by John Solomon, a writer who is also serving as a Trump designee to the Archives. CNN has confirmed the letter through a source familiar with the document.

The May letter from Debra Steidel Wall, the acting US archivist, provides important new details of the months-long interaction between government officials and the Trump team early this year after the 15 boxes of materials were returned from Mar-a-Lago to the National Archives.

The letter outlines a deferential treatment given to the former president, with the FBI waiting more than a month to gain access to do a damage assessment of what was found in the 15 boxes, which had been held in a location that doesn't meet the requirements for highly sensitive classified materials.

When the Archives first notified the Justice Department early this year of the large volume of classified information retrieved from Mar-a-Lago, Justice officials balked at launching a criminal investigation, people briefed on the matter have told CNN. Top officials weighed the national security implications of classified information stored at an unsecure location, with the knowledge that political blowback that would come from the FBI and federal prosecutors again launching an investigation that had legal repercussions for Trump.

The delay in allowing the FBI to review the materials occurred while the Archives wrestled with Trump's potential claim of executive privilege, and the letter outlines discussions involving the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel and the White House over what to do about it, even weighing Nixon-era legal precedents, before letting the FBI do its work.

Ultimately, the Biden White House Counsel's office deferred to the Archives, which allowed the Biden administration to begin what has now become a full criminal investigation that is examining possible crimes including mishandling of national defense information and obstruction of justice.

'Not a close question'

Before sending the May 10 letter, National Archives had previously informed the Trump team on April 12 that it would be providing the FBI access to the documents, according to the account its letter lays out. The White House had blessed the Archives' sharing of the materials with the FBI. But, on the request of the Trump team, the Archives delayed that production until April 29.

Trump's lawyers then -- in letters apparently sent on April 29 and May 1 -- asked the Archives to further delay the production, according to the account laid out in the May 10 letter, as the Trump team said it needed more time to review the documents to decide whether to assert privilege over any of the materials.

In the May 10 letter, the Archives told Trump's lawyer that it was rebuffing the request for the further delay. The Archives told Trump's lawyer that had it consulted the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which provides legal advice across the executive branch, and had been told there was no precedent the current situation. The Archives had sought the DOJ Office of Legal Counsel's advice after counsel to President Joe Biden told the Archives that Biden was deferring to the Archives for a determination on how to handle Trump's protective assertions of privilege.

"The question in this case is not a close one," the Archives said. "The Executive Branch here is seeking access to records belonging to, and in the custody of, the Federal Government itself, not only in order to investigate whether those records were handled in an unlawful manner but also, as the National Security Division explained, to 'conduct an assessment of the potential damage resulting from the apparent manner in which these materials were stored and transported and take any necessary remedial steps.'"

Trump continues claims of 'witch hunt'

The version of events laid out in the new letter shows steps the Archives was willing to take to accommodate Trump's privilege concerns. Yet, Trump and his allies have pointed to it to claim it showed that he was the victim of a "witch hunt," particularly because of the letter's mention of the communications the Archives had with the Biden White House.

"The White House stated strongly that they were NOT INVOLVED, and knew absolutely nothing about, the political Witch Hunt going on with me, & that they didn't know anything at all about the Break-In of Mar-a-Lago," Trump said on Truth Social.

The letter was made public hours after Trump filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking the appointment of a special master to sift through the evidence the FBI obtained in the August 9 Mar-a-Lago search. How successful the new gambit will be remains unclear. It was filed two weeks after the search was conducted and the Trump legal team has yet to file the type of emergency motion that would speed up the consideration of the request. The lawsuit, while full of fiery political rhetoric, also did not contain robust legal arguments for why the judge should intervene in the matter.

This story has been updated with additional details.

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