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The FBI recently raided Trump's residence in order to recover Presidential records that were taken from the White House without permission. But why would that be important, given that Trump's people could've easily:

  1. Taken photos/scans of all the documents and uploaded them to multiple secure locations in the cloud
  2. Shredded the documents
  3. Burnt the remains to get rid of evidence

If this was still February 2021, the raid would make sense. But this is now... August 2022 and Trump's team had 1.5 years to get rid of the evidence or at least make digital copies. So why go through the hassle of recovering the paper copies?

Wiki claims that the government has been complaining about the missing documents since at least May 2021, so presumably Trump would've had ~15 months to make all the digital copies he wants.

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    It is worth noting that a raid on the President's house is a bold move by the FBI. The reason they waited so long is that they exhausted other options first. Even after doing that they are getting a lot of scrutiny. If that was their first move that scrutiny might have been justified.
    – JohnFx
    Aug 15, 2022 at 21:04
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    This question suggests that you haven't read about the legal basis for the investigation. Have you? I mean, it sounds like you're asking an analogous question to "why did the police search the drug dealer's apartment and confiscate the drugs when they could have flushed them down the toilet?"
    – phoog
    Aug 15, 2022 at 21:06
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    @phoog normally you would be right but raiding a former President's residence is a really big deal and I'm surprised this was done over an issue that should've been addressed in February 2021, not August 2022. And you can't make digital copies of drugs. Aug 15, 2022 at 21:11
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    "The FBI recently raided Trump's residence in order to recover Presidential records" - and classifiied documents. The prima facie offences related to the classified documents are more serious than the failure to return presidential records.
    – Lag
    Aug 16, 2022 at 8:20
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    @Lag none of the statutes cited in the search warrant has anything to do with classified documents.
    – phoog
    Aug 18, 2022 at 5:01

8 Answers 8

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But why would that be important, given that Trump's people could've easily: ...

They could have, but they didn't.

So why go through the hassle of recovering the paper copies?

The paper copies are possibly evidence of a crime. The fact that the evidence could have been destroyed does not make it less useful as evidence. (Indeed, the fact that it wasn't destroyed makes it more useful as evidence.) Investigators gather evidence, so they recovered the paper copies.

The federal government also has a custodial interest in physically securing the documents to reduce the risk of the information in them becoming known to unauthorized people. The reaction to earlier requests to store the documents more securely led to the suspicion that the documents were at risk of being so exposed. This provides additional incentive to take custody of the documents.

Furthermore, the law specifies that any documents that fall within the scope of the Presidential Records Act are to be under the custodial control of the Archivist of the United States. The documents were seized in part to determine whether they are presidential records and, if so, to deliver them to the archivist. Whether Trump made copies is irrelevant to this, and, for documents that aren't classified and don't fall under the espionage act, it's irrelevant to anything. The presidential records act doesn't deny presidents access to their records. On the contrary, it guarantees access:

the Presidential records of a former President shall be available to such former President or the former President’s designated representative

(44 USC 2205(3))

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  • How do we know that they didn't make copies? Keeping the originals doesn't preclude that. We know from past investigations that Trump and his people are incompetent, this is certainly the kind of mistake they might make. It might even be a decoy.
    – Barmar
    Aug 16, 2022 at 13:17
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    @Barmar we don't know that they didn't make copies. But we do know that they didn't make copies, shred the originals, and burn the remains.
    – phoog
    Aug 16, 2022 at 13:22
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    @Barmar you are on a completely wrong train of thought. This investigation is not about could-have-happeneds in the past. It is about gathering evidence that a crime was committed, so that the central factor in real or potential breaches (the persons doing it) can be kept away from future material. The current material is more or less considered breached. But with this trial (based on this evidence) future breaches of future material could be prevented
    – Hobbamok
    Aug 17, 2022 at 11:24
  • @Barmar: On top of what Hobbamok said - removing the paper copies of the originals makes it harder for them to make copies without using the copies they made to make those copies. Knowing who has the original documents means you know who is liable for the other copies, if they are made. Aug 18, 2022 at 1:03
  • Trump et al. might have made digital copies - who knows. But if they indeed made digital copies, they weren't caught.
    – henning
    Aug 19, 2022 at 13:22
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The records are property of the US government. The DOJ is looking into crimes related to their handling, not simply to retrieve them. If Trump had destroyed these records improperly, he could be charged with additional crimes related to their destruction

Some of these involve criminal charges, and significant jail time. I'd argue the DOJ would work with either outcome - they know the records were on the premises, meaning that they either seize the boxes and prosecute, or they seize evidence that they were digitized and destroyed, and pursue several additional criminal charges, some of which are listed below:

Under 18 U.S.C. § 2071, individuals who willfully remove or destroy records “filed or deposited” in “any public office” — or who attempt to do so — may be subject to fines or up to three years of imprisonment if they deprive the government use of those documents (United States v. Rosner, 352 F. Supp. 915 (S.D.N.Y. 1972))

Under 18 U.S.C. § 793(f), individuals with possession or control of records reflecting national defense information who permit their removal, loss, or destruction by “gross negligence” are subject to fines or imprisonment of not more than ten years;

If any of these records are related to active investigations involving Trump, a prosecutor could have a go at a prosecution with:

18 U.S.C. § 1519, individuals who destroy records to impede or influence an actual or contemplated investigation under the jurisdiction of any U.S. agency may be fined or subject to imprisonment of up to 20 years (United States v. Katakis, 800 F.3d 1017, 1023 (9th Cir. 2015).

Without the destruction of the records, Trump has a "good faith" defence to fall back on - swear that he had no knowledge that these records were still there, that, to the best of his knowledge, his team had fulfilled all the requests for their return. It's likely, that, even if it leads to criminal charges, the simple presence of records probably won't lead to jail time. It would be an excellent defence against 18 U.S.C. § 2071, as this aims to prosecute individuals who "wilfully remove or destroy" records.

A prosecutor would also have to prove that Trump displayed "gross negligence" in his handling of national defence information for prosecution under 18 U.S.C. § 793(f).

See Congressional Oversight of Executive Branch Records Preservation from Co-Equal.

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    There could also be other crimes charged unrelated to the statutes cited in the warrant.
    – phoog
    Aug 17, 2022 at 10:04
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    @phoog agreed - it's not an exhaustive list by any means - I really wanted to demonstrate, though, that if you're planning on making off with a load of US government records, some of which are classified, it can be to your benefit to stick with the paper copies, rather than digitizing and having a bonfire :P. I'm not sure when this advice might be useful, and I suspect if it ever is to anyone, they've made some sufficiently poor choices that they're unlikely to listen to me.
    – lupe
    Aug 17, 2022 at 12:22
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Those documents are still presidential documents and there are requirements around how and where they are stored. There is also a concern about there being classified information in them that should not have left the proper storage facilities and Trump should not have still had.

Just because Trump could have digitized all that information and destroyed the physical evidence doesn't mean that there isn't a need to properly secure all of that information.

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Even if Trump decided to save it to the cloud and wipe all physical evidence the FBI still has ways to recover encrypted data on a computer or cloud server, especially if the cloud server takes requests for information from federal agencies such as the FBI.

The warrant was already made because the FBI had very good reason to believe that physical or digital copies of the papers existed somewhere on the property as detailed in the unsealed warrant. Raiding the residence of a President who has a cult following is already very bold, so it suggests that the FBI were doing surveillance months or years before the raid and were sure of illegal actions being committed by Donald J. Trump.

The FBI found the papers they were looking for. It hasn't been revealed whether or not his computer equipment was seized to my knowledge.

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    The FBI doesn’t really have ways to recover properly encrypted data but otherwise a good answe. Aug 16, 2022 at 16:10
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    Properly encrypted data, yes for sure they can't break that. My point is that the FBI has known vulnerabilities in their toolkit to recover data from seemingly "properly encrypted" data. Think Cold Boot Attacks, programming and security errors, and others. These have been used before to convict those who use vulnerable versions of security software like Truecrypt which is now defunct.
    – Bapcap
    Aug 16, 2022 at 16:14
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    @Bapcap Do you have a link that describes the Truecrypt vulnerabilities? I did a quick search and all I could find were exploits in the driver that allow arbitrary execution of code. But not an exploit that lets you recover data from an encrypted disk without knowing the key.
    – Chuu
    Aug 16, 2022 at 17:08
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    @Chuu I should have specified more, while Truecrypt doesn't have known public vulnerabilities, since its legacy it's vulnerable to attacks known by agencies. What isn't speculation is that the FBI has exploits to recover data from "secure" devices such as the iOS and Android OS's. So it's probable they may know ways into "secure" applications. My fault for not elaborating
    – Bapcap
    Aug 16, 2022 at 20:12
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    Hi @Bapcap! Do you mind editing your answer to be more natural? Please stick to the facts. Welcome to the Politics StackExchange.
    – Drazisil
    Aug 16, 2022 at 23:43
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All of the following is my understanding of the current situation and concerns based on what I've read in the news and other public information.

There appear to be two separate types of documents here that are of concern to the government:

  1. Records produced by the Trump administration. These may or may not contain sensitive information, but that doesn't matter: but the key point is that the government does not have those records; they were removed from government offices when Trump left office.
  2. Documents produced by other parts of the government that contain sensitive information and thus are classified under the United states government classification system (as Confidential, Secret, Top Secret etc.).

Your question does not appear to be concerned with the latter, so I won't address those further except to point out that it should be obvious why the government would be concerned whether classified documents are stored securely and why they would attempt to retrieve any copies that they feel are not stored with sufficient security.

(A third type would be non-confidential documents produced by other parts of the government; these are of no concern because the government still has their copies and thus has no need of the Trump administration's copies, nor any need to protect the Trump administration's copies.)

The records produced by the Trump administration are, by law, owned by the public and the government is legally mandated to preserve copies of them. The government apparently does not have copies of some of these records produced by the Trump administration, so they're trying to get copies, as is their legal obligation. That's all.

The idea that the Trump team could have made copies (digital or paper, and uploaded to the cloud or stored elsewhere) isn't relevant at all to this; there's nothing saying that Trump can't keep copies of whatever they like that they've generated. (This might even be done at the time the records are generated; the law mentioned above allows you to create/send electronic records through non-official accounts so long you, at the same time or shortly thereafter, send a copy to an official account that's properly archived.

It's certainly possible that the Trump team could have destroyed (shredded, burned, whatever) the records that the government is trying to retrieve copies of. But that's not particularly relevant, either; it's never guaranteed that when you execute a search warrant you'll find what you're looking for. If one should never do a search when you can imagine some circumstance where the search would fail, you'd never search for anything.

Imagine a parallel situation: you let a friend use your workshop to help you build a birdhouse, and later you discover that the dowel for the perch you were working on together is missing, and hear that your friend took it to his workshop. You can imagine the possibility that he took it to his workshop and burned it; does that mean you don't go there and look to see if it's there or not?

You also use, several times, the term "evidence." Whether these documents are evidence of anything or not is no concern of those attempting to fulfil the obligations of the Presendential Records Act; the government must preserve copies of these documents regardless. If other parts of the government later wish to claim that any of those documents are evidence of something or other, they may have access to them in order to support their claim, but that's nothing to do with the PRA itself or the obligation of the government to preserve these documents. They must be preserved even if nobody claims that they're evidence of anything at all.

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  • The copies part is for the confidential stuff. Obviously it doesn’t make sense to copy documents that were semi public already. Aug 17, 2022 at 2:45
  • Asked a follow up question on confidential documents: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/74817/… Aug 17, 2022 at 4:40
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    @JonathanReez I get the feeling that you are confused: the primary distinction is not between confidential and non-confidential, but between the Trump administration's records and other records. I've expanded the explanation of the distinction slightly to try to clarify this, Any records produced by the Trump administration, confidential or not, must be kept by the government due to the PRA; with regard to those records the government is simply trying to acquire them because they don't have them, yet by law are required to have and preserve them.
    – cjs
    Aug 17, 2022 at 5:28
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    @JonathanReez, cjs: the PRA also protects documents received by the presidential administration, unless those documents are official records of an agency. Any document produced by an agency and sent to the president (or staff) that isn't part of its official record is a presidential record. Also, the Espionage Act covers documents based on their potential use to harm the US. It doesn't matter whether the document is formally classified.
    – phoog
    Aug 17, 2022 at 10:11
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Original 'hard' versions of documents are the official record of what actually occurred. If there is ever any question about what was said, done, or written, we want to turn back to the original document to get a definitive answer.

For an example, let's say that an accidental fire destroyed the original document containing the Bill of Rights. Fifty years after that fire, someone claims that the first amendment actually reads:

Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

and that the lines about "respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" that appear in all the copies of the original were added later by some unknown person, and thus not really part of the amendment. Without the original document, how can we say that this person is wrong?

In the Mar a Lago case, consider the "Executive Grant of Clemency for Roger Stone" that was among the documents Trump had in his possession. Since this original document is out of the control of NARA, private citizen Trump could ostensibly edit it to say whatever he wanted it to say and claim that it had always said that, and there would be no original document to turn to proving that claim wrong. He could thus — again, as a private citizen — extend new clemencies to Stone, or add new people to the clemency order. While it's doubtful this would work in practice, the removal of the original document from public to private control sows ambiguity and confusion that we just don't need.

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  • Is there precedent to something like this happening in the entire history of the US? Aug 16, 2022 at 16:56
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    @JonathanReez: Watergate is probably the litmus test; Nixon's sub rosa documentation of his own actions and discussions as president became 'original' sources that undercut his later claims and denials. But frankly this is a standard principle of legal contract and evidentiary theory: original documents are maintained and preserved specifically to preclude later hearsy arguments. Aug 16, 2022 at 17:28
  • @JonathanReez, Ted Wrigley: but the Presidential Records Act was not yet in force at the time of Watergate. It was enacted in reaction to Nixon's seeking to destroy records when he resigned under threat of impeachment, to help prevent something similar from happening again.
    – phoog
    Jun 28, 2023 at 9:48
  • I mean of course the originals serve as the best evidence, but practically each contract has at least 2 copies (1 for each party), politically relevant proclamations in a republic are supposed to be made in public, so there's a plethora of witnesses on top of the notaries and witnesses present when the original was made and in the case of really important stuff like the bill of rights, there are probably thousands if not millions of authorized copies. So it's less about evidence and probably more about preserving history worthy cultural relics.
    – haxor789
    Jun 28, 2023 at 11:37
  • @haxor789 I'm not sure if a weather map with a hand-draw circle by Trump is that important to preserve in the original... The whole thing is a charade. Jun 28, 2023 at 15:04
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It's possible that these are multiple different charges. One of them apparently seems to be that these records are owed to the public or some library keeping track of them.

So what happens if you'd go to a library, take a book and never return it? Well they will realize it's absence, look up who had it last and charge you for being overdue and/or to return/replace the book.

Now in this case it's not a book and it's unique so only return will do and having it lost or destroyed on your duty might already be a crime worthy fault of yours. So regardless of it's content the absence of these documents from the respective storage might already be a crime and the retrieval might just be for collecting and documenting official actions (the proper way).

And on top of that you could have other problems, such as high security content and the risk of improper storage, duplication of information and the risk of improper storage of classified information, the destruction of official documents, forgery of official documents (if things are added or removed) and a lot more of these.

So even if it's something completely unimportant and even if Trump has already made copies and destroyed the original, the official place for documenting his presidency would still want to have a full record and thus would want to have the originals and see it as a crime worthy offense not to have them and as said he's likely the figuratively last person to have been seen with them, so they are or should be in his possession.

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  • But these documents have ~zero historical value, right? At least in terms of where it would matter whether the A4 on which the text was printed is the "original" or not. 99.9999% of all government records are not of sufficient value to care about where the "original" really is. Jun 28, 2023 at 15:05
  • Yes and no. I mean most likely 99.999% of the paper trail of a president is not very noteworthy and will be subsequently destroyed anyway. That being said it still makes sense to demand a full record upon leaving office and to do the evaluation AFTER that. I mean Trump is suspected of flushing documents down the toilet, withholding his conversation with Kim Jong Un or turning in documents that had to be taped together and he has lied so much about so many meaningless topics that there is probably a lot more to preserve than usual. So whatever is missing is interesting on it's own.
    – haxor789
    Jun 29, 2023 at 9:31
  • And in terms of originals. Well regardless of how meaningless the document is, there's probably a market for collectors of such things and if there are suppliers of "exclusive material" that's a security risk. So there are originals and having those originals and be able to claim everything else to be fakes (regardless of whether that is true), is probably a nice feature of that.
    – haxor789
    Jun 29, 2023 at 9:33
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Paper records themselves are not the (only) problem.

First, to get it out of the way, at this point the documents themselves are only part of the story. There is significant evidence that justice was obstructed. That itself is a serious crime. The DOJ can point to a subpoena for "documents with classified markings", Team Trump responding affirmatively to the subpoena saying they searched for and returned all found "documents with classified markings", and eyewitnesses reporting "documents with classified markings" that were not returned. That is very, very clear evidence of a serious crime (obstruction and related). Even if nothing else were found, if they did obstruct (they haven't argued they haven't yet - that comes later), this is still a long sentence felony. Very serious. That alone would be enough to search and prosecute anyone else.

Beyond obstructing that subpoena, there is also the execution of the law in regards to official records. We have rules. Those rules weren't followed. For the Rule of Law to have meaning, those rules must be followed (or at least good faith attempts must be made). To that end, just dropping the issue when a former official ignores the rules hurts the Rule of Law itself. So wilfully fighting rules (laws) is a concern even beyond the harm done by how the rules are broken.

There are better answers that discuss how having the paper copies makes it easier to create additional copies.

(It's not accurate that a former President can legally make copies of and/or retain anything. That's a huge and different discussion, but a private citizen showing a reporter exactly what an Iranian attack would look like is far outside what is acceptable or legal.)

Also, note that some documents were voluntarily returned. No charges arose from those, even while charges were filed for the documents sized in the raid.

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