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President Donald Trump speaks during his meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at Winfield House in London on December 3, 2019. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

Timeline of Trump's Lies: The Mar-a-Lago Papers and 'Consciousness of Guilt'

Day after day in the unfolding Mar-a-Lago scandal, Trump's own words have added evidence of criminal wrongdoing that could cost him a lot more than money.

Steven Harper

Former president Donald Trump is unleashing a barrage of contradictory lies about the FBI's search of a possible crime scene – Mar-a-Lago. As each lie collapses under the weight of incontrovertible facts, he moves on to a new one. In 2018, Trump adviser Steve Bannon described the strategy to author Michael Lewis:

"The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit."

Except this time Trump's very real opposition is the U.S. Department of Justice, and federal prosecutors are not so easily distracted. With every lie that Trump tells and then abandons, he creates new evidence of what prosecutors call "consciousness of guilt" – a defendant's post-crime conduct indicating an awareness that he or she committed the offense.

Ironically, as Trump spun his Mar-a-Lago lies, he sat for a deposition in the New York attorney general's civil suit that threatens his wealth. Trump refused to answer every question, except his name. He asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination more than 440 times.

Yet day after day in the unfolding Mar-a-Lago scandal, Trump's own words have added evidence of criminal wrongdoing that could cost him a lot more than money.

Timeline Leading to the Search

January 2022: After months of wrangling with the National Archives, Trump returned 15 boxes of presidential documents that he had no right to possess. Under the Presidential Records Act, they were and are the property of the American people. When he left office, they should have gone to the Archives, regardless of whether they were classified.

February 2022: While in office, Trump had torn up documents and flushed them down the White House residence toilet. As Archives officials reviewed the 15 boxes of material recovered in January 2022, they discovered previously torn documents that White House records management personnel had taped back together. They found other documents that remained in tatters.

Archives officials realized that some boxes contained classified material and suspected that some records were missing altogether. They referred the matter to the Justice Department.

April-May 2022: Federal agents quietly interviewed Trump aides at Mar-a-Lago about the handling of presidential records.

June 3, 2022: Four Justice Department investigators met with Trump's lawyers at Mar-a-Lago and visited a basement room housing the documents. During the meeting, the investigators served a grand jury subpoena for some of the sensitive national security documents and took those documents with them.

Around this time, one of Trump's lawyers certified that Trump had now returned all classified material in the storage room boxes.

June 8, 2022: Trump's attorneys received a letter from federal investigators asking them to increase security for the document storage room in the basement at Mar-a-Lago. Trump aides added a padlock.

June 22, 2022: Federal investigators subpoenaed the Trump Organization for surveillance tape of the Mar-a-Lago document storage area. The tape allowed investigators to determine who had accessed that area.

Aug. 5, 2022: Based on an evidentiary showing of probable cause that the search would lead to evidence of a crime, a federal magistrate judge approved the warrant to search specific areas of Mar-a-Lago.

Timeline of Trump's Lies

Lie #1: Persecution

Aug. 8, 2022: The FBI conducted the search and gave Trump's representatives a copy of the warrant. When they finished, they also provided Trump with an inventory listing everything that the FBI had found and seized.

The warrant revealed that the FBI was seeking evidence of serious crimes involving destruction of government records, obstruction of justice, and the Espionage Act.

The inventory revealed that the FBI had found 20 boxes of material that included 11 sets of classified documents. Some documents were marked "Secret," "Top Secret," or "Top Secret/Secured Compartmented Information" – one of the highest levels of classification. 

That evening, Trump complained publicly about the search, calling it political persecution. He had a copy of the warrant and inventory that proved otherwise, but the public didn't.

Lie #2: The FBI is corrupt

August 10, 2022: Trump suggested falsely that the FBI may have planted evidence during the search.

August 11, 2022: Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that he would seek public disclosure of the search warrant and the inventory of items that the FBI had collected during the search. Those documents would reveal the criminal statutes involved and the results of the search, thereby exposing Trump's lies about "persecution" and supposedly "FBI-planted" material.

Lie #3: Obama did it too

August 11, 2022: On his social network platform, Trump pivoted to a new lie that also introduced a red herring. He claimed falsely that former President Barack Obama took millions of classified documents with him. In fact, the National Archives retained custody of President Obama's records when he left office, including those sent to an Archives facility in the Chicago area. Moreover, the criminal statutes cited in the Mar-a-Lago search warrant apply to classified and unclassified documents.

August 12, 2022: The National Archives publicly refuted Trump's lie.

Lie #4: Trump declassified everything

August 12: Trump announced that he would not oppose the release of the search warrant and inventory, and the federal magistrate judge unsealed them. With public disclosure of the serious potential crimes identified in the warrant, coupled with the classified material listed in the inventory, Trump resorted to a new lie that highlighted his red-herring issue. Without any supporting documentation, he claimed that he had issued a "standing order" declassifying everything that went to Mar-a-Lago.

But that contradicted what one of Trump's lawyers had certified to the Justice Department in June, namely, that all classified material at Mar-a-Lago had been returned.

Trump's former national security adviser John Bolton said that Trump's claim to have issued a standing order was "almost certainly a lie." Bolton knew of no such order, adding, "When somebody begins to concoct lies like this, it shows a real level of desperation."

Glenn Gerstell, Trump's former top lawyer for the National Security Agency from 2015 to 2020, called Trump's claim of a standing order "preposterous."

Lies #5 and #6 in the works?

Aug. 14, 2022: On CNN, Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) said that he hadn't seen the Mar-a-Lago documents. Nevertheless, he still raised doubts about whether the documents really had risen "to the highest level of classified material." (Never mind those pesky "Secret," "Top Secret," and "Top Secret/SCI" designations. And never mind that Trump's entire "classified v. declassified" argument is a red-herring anyway.)

Turner, by the way, is the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.

Aug. 16, 2022: Former Trump White House aides began blaming former chief of staff Mark Meadows for failing to return presidential documents before Trump left office.

You might think that Trump's Republican defenders would have grown weary of his contradictory lies, pause before pushing each new one, or notice that Trump throws even his staunchest loyalists under the bus.

You'd be wrong. They've already coalesced around several conflicting whoppers.

And it's only been a week.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Steven Harper

Steven J. Harper is an attorney, adjunct professor at Northwestern University Law School, and author of several books, including Crossing Hoffa — A Teamster’s Story and The Lawyer Bubble — A Profession in Crisis. He has been a regular columnist for Moyers on Democracy, Dan Rather’s News & Guts, and The American Lawyer.

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