Another Trump Mystery: Why Did He Resist Returning the Government’s Documents?

For four years, former President Donald J. Trump treated the federal government and the political apparatus operating in his name as an extension of his private real estate company.

It all belonged to him, he felt, melded together into a Trump brand that he had been nurturing for decades.

“My generals,” he repeatedly said of the active-duty and retired military leaders who filled his government. “My money,” he often called the cash he raised through his campaign or for the Republican National Committee. “My Kevin,” he said of Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader.

And White House documents?

“They’re mine,” three of Mr. Trump’s advisers said that he stated repeatedly when he was urged to return boxes of documents, some of them highly classified, that the National Archives sought after Mr. Trump took them with him to Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Palm Beach, Fla., in January 2021. A nearly 18-month back-and-forth between the government and Mr. Trump ended in an extraordinary F.B.I. search for the documents at Mar-a-Lago last week.

The question, as with so much else around Mr. Trump, is why? Why did he insist on refusing to turn over government papers that by law did not belong to him, igniting another legal conflagration? As with so much else related to Mr. Trump, there is not one easy answer.

Here are the main possibilities.

Exciting documents

Mr. Trump, a pack rat who for decades showed off knickknacks in his overstuffed Trump Tower office — including a giant shoe that once belonged to the basketball player Shaquille O’Neal — treated the nation’s secrets as similar trinkets to brandish. White House aides described how excited he was to show off all the material he had access to, including letters from the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, which he routinely waved at visitors, alarming his advisers.

Some of those letters were among the trove that Mr. Trump had with him at Mar-a-Lago.

The former president’s thrills over the intelligence started early. In May 2017, Mr. Trump blurted out classified intelligence provided by Israel during a meeting with two high-level Russian government officials, horrifying his national security team.

Two years later, when his intelligence briefers showed him a sophisticated and sensitive photo of a failed Iranian rocket launch, Mr. Trump was gleeful. “I want to tweet this,” he told the C.I.A. director, the national security adviser and the director of national intelligence, according to a person with direct knowledge of the event.

Officials tried to stop him, but Mr. Trump went ahead and shared the photo with what were then his 63 million Twitter followers.

Mr. Trump regularly rejected any attempts to try to enforce outside rules, regulations or norms on the White House.Credit…Oliver Contreras for The New York Times

‘L’état, c’est moi’

Efforts intended in previous administrations to prevent conflicts of interest in the presidency were viewed derisively by Mr. Trump, who never divested from his company and kept an eye on his properties, even as he said publicly he had turned over all management to his sons.

Mr. Trump embodied Louis XIV’s phrase “L’état, c’est moi,” or “I am the state,” his own advisers and several outside observers said.

“From my own experiences with him, which is bolstered by those around him who are speaking in his defense, his actions seem to fit the pattern that as ‘king,’ he and the state are one and the same,” said Mark S. Zaid, a lawyer who frequently handles cases related to national security and security clearances, including during the Trump presidency. “He seems to honestly believe that everything he touches belongs to him, and that includes government documents that might be classified.”

More Coverage of the F.B.I. Search of Trump’s Home

  • G.O.P. Split: As Republicans continued to defend former President Donald J. Trump after the F.B.I.’s search of Mar-a-Lago, deep fissures were visible in the party’s support for law enforcement.
  • Shifting Explanations: Mr. Trump and his allies have given often conflicting defenses of his retention of classified documents without addressing why he had kept them.
  • Trump-F.B.I. Conflict: The Mar-a-Lago search was a dramatic moment after years of tumult between Mr. Trump and the nation’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
  • Trump’s Reaction: In the wake of the search, Mr. Trump has accused the nation’s justice system of being exactly what he tried to turn it into: a political weapon for a president.

Mr. Trump rarely used a Twitter handle that was assigned to the president, @POTUS, and instead preferred to have his digital director, Dan Scavino, promote the one in Mr. Trump’s own name.

The former president also regularly rejected any attempts to try to enforce outside rules, regulations or norms on the White House, and maintained that his close advisers had absolute immunity from some congressional subpoenas.

“Presidents are not kings,” Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote as a federal court judge in Washington in 2019, when over White House objections she ordered Donald F. McGahn II, Mr. Trump’s former White House counsel, to testify about what House Democrats said was a pattern of presidential obstruction of justice. She added, “They do not have subjects, bound by loyalty or blood, whose destiny they are entitled to control.”

Ripping up paper

Although Trump White House officials were warned about the proper handling of sensitive material, aides said Mr. Trump had little interest in the security of government documents or protocols to keep them protected.

Early on, Mr. Trump became known among his staff as a hoarder who threw all manner of paper — sensitive material, news clips and various other items — into cardboard boxes that a valet or other personal aide would cart around with him wherever he went.

Mr. Trump repeatedly had material sent up to the White House residence, and it was not always clear what happened to it. He sometimes asked to keep material after his intelligence briefings, but aides said he was so uninterested in the paperwork during the briefings themselves that they never understood what he wanted it for.

He also had a habit of ripping up paper, from routine documents to classified material, and leaving the pieces strewn around the floor or in a trash can. Officials would have to rummage through the shreds and tape them back together to recreate the documents in order to store them as required under the Presidential Records Act.

On some occasions, Mr. Trump would rip up documents — some with his handwriting on them — and throw the pieces in a toilet, which occasionally clogged the pipes in the White House. He did the same thing on at least two foreign trips, former officials said.

Outside the White House, secure rooms where Mr. Trump could review sensitive documents were set up at both Mar-a-Lago and the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., although he did not always use them.

Mr. Trump was meeting with the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe at Mar-a-Lago in early 2017, for example, when North Korea launched a missile test. Rather than retreating to a secure room, Mr. Trump and his advisers reviewed security documents in the open air on the patio, using the flashlight from an iPhone. Paying members and their guests looked on at the show, taking photos and posting them on social media.

“No other president has lived in a hotel,” said John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s third national security adviser.

Over time, Mr. Trump bristled against the guardrails people tried placing on him, particularly his second White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, who tried to impose a more rigid system for classified information.

Personal information

Mr. Trump, Mr. Bolton said, never told him he planned to take a document and use it for something beyond its value as a memento.

It was “sort of whatever he wants to grab for whatever reason,” Mr. Bolton said. “He may not even fully appreciate” precisely why he did certain things.

But officials worried, particularly about the documents falling into the wrong hands.

Other advisers wondered if Mr. Trump kept some documents because they contained details about people he knew.

Among the items that presidents are given on overseas trips are biographies of foreign leaders, a former administration official said. One version is unclassified and fairly routine. But the other is classified and can contain numerous personal details.

One of the files the F.B.I. seized at Mar-a-Lago was marked “info re: President of France,” about Emmanuel Macron.

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