When the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago in August 2022, they found over 100 classified documents that Donald Trump was still hiding at various locations around the resort, including that infamous stack of boxes in a bathroom. However, even though what was recovered included some national security documents classified at the very highest level, that doesn’t mean the FBI found everything it was looking for.
Along with the documents, the FBI found empty folders that carried markings showing they had once held other classified documents. Some of the documents that were missing from those folders were sensitive enough that their titles or topics have still not been revealed.
But more than a dozen sources told CNN that there’s one fat binder of information that has been the target of a lengthy search since Trump left office. That binder contains critical documents concerning Russian interference in the 2016 election and the beginnings of the FBI investigation into connections between the Russians and the Trump campaign. The binder was in the White House days before Trump packed up to leave. It was the subject of a hurried last-minute effort to declassify and release documents. But minutes before President Joe Biden took over, it disappeared.
CNN reports that the vanishing binder put intelligence officials on high alert. Included in the missing documents is some of the most closely guarded national security information from both the United States and its allies. Since Trump left office, the documents have not been seen.
In the last few days before Trump decamped for Mar-a-Lago, the binder was at the center of a series of hasty actions and bizarre occurrences.
First, Trump ordered that the binder be brought to the White House, reportedly so that he could declassify and release the information. At the White House, documents were under the control of then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and a group of Republican aides while they attempted to determine what information had to be redacted and what could be released.
Some of the redacted information was reportedly declassified less than 48 hours before the inauguration of Biden. Meadows and his assistants made multiple copies of these documents and began distributing them to Republican legislators and right-wing journalists.
However, CNN’s sources report that the “copies initially sent out were frantically retrieved at the direction of White House lawyers demanding additional redactions.” Minutes before Biden was sworn in, Meadows ran to the Justice Department with a final version of some documents. What happened to those documents is not known.
The original binder disappeared.
Included in the binder was raw intelligence information collected by both the U.S. and NATO allies. Any release of that information would represent a threat to intelligence-gathering methods, sources, and agents in the field. If the documents contain an analysis of how effective Russia was in altering the outcome of the 2016 election, or recommendations for steps that could be taken to safeguard future elections, the binder might be seen as a blueprint for how a foreign power could effectively suppress democracy in America.
The word “binder” may make it seem that this was something brief. However, it was reportedly 10 inches thick and contained, in CNN’s words, “reams of information.” In addition to the raw intelligence from multiple sources, it also contained details of the FBI’s investigation. That the intelligence information was never declassified and made public is a good indication that there was no smoking gun in those documents that supports Trump’s allegations about the investigation.
The information contained in the binder is so sensitive that, according to CNN, before it was taken to the White House, Congress members and aides were required to have a top-secret clearance to see the binder. Even then, they could view the contents only in a locked compartment at CIA headquarters.
Meadows’ aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who gave some of the most compelling testimony during the hearings of the House Jan. 6 committee, wrote in her book “Enough” that Meadows burned so many documents after Trump lost the 2020 election that his suits smelled like a bonfire. However, according to her testimony during the hearing, Hutchinson doesn’t believe that Meadows burned the contents of the binder. Instead, she wrote in her memoir that she saw her former boss take it home.
Attorneys for Meadows deny that he has any classified documents. It’s unclear if the FBI has conducted any search for the binder at Meadows’ home or other properties. Trump’s allies claim that Trump would also like to get his hands on the binder so he can release information that might support his claims about the “witch hunt” origins of the FBI investigation. But the binder, and its contents, are still missing.
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