"Damning" testimony from former Trump aide: He scribbled notes on classified docs

Donald Trump; Documents; Mar A Lago Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images
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Donald Trump's longtime assistant has told federal investigators that the former president repeatedly wrote to-do lists for her on White House documents marked as classified, sources familiar with the matter told ABC News.

The aide, Molly Michael, informed investigators that she received to-do lists from Trump on multiple occasions that were written on the back of notecards she later identified as confidential White House materials with visible classification markings on them, which had been used to brief the president on phone calls with foreign leaders or other international matters, according to ABC.

"Michael's testimony is damning in the classified documents case," former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani told Salon, arguing that it demonstrated "Trump's knowledge that he unlawfully maintained classified documents," and also "his intent to keep them from the FBI and to obstruct justice."

The notecards with classification markings were found during the FBI's search of Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida last year, but the FBI did not take them, sources familiar with the matter told the news outlet.

Michael said she visited Mar-a-Lago a day after the search and located the documents beneath a drawer organizer and delivered the documents to the FBI that same day, the sources said.

"Sophisticated criminal defendants do not often admit to committing crimes, but if the jury believes Michael, that is exactly what Trump did," Rahmani said.

Earlier this summer, Trump was indicted for stashing documents at Mar-a-Lago and obstructing government efforts to retrieve them. After receiving a subpoena from the Department of Justice demanding the return of classified documents, Trump and his team returned of them, but the subsequent FBI raid of the private Palm Beach club that serves as Trump's residence yielded more than 100 classified documents.

Michael informed investigators that last year she grew increasingly concerned about the way Trump handled recurring requests from the National Archives for the return of government documents, sources told ABC.

Trump allegedly told Michael, "You don't know anything about the boxes," after he heard that the FBI wanted to interview Michael last year, according to sources.

If that amounted to the ex-president instructing a former aide to "follow his guidance" about the classified documents he retained after leaving the White House, that would "add further credence" to the argument that Trump purposefully ignored requests from the National Archives and Department of Justice to return all such documents prior to the August 2022 Mar-a-Lago raid, said Javed Ali, a former senior counterterrorism official at the Department of Homeland Security.

Trump pleaded not guilty in June to 37 criminal counts related to his handling of classified materials containing intelligence on nuclear weapons programs and information on the nation's defense capabilities. That case was filed in Florida federal court, and is separate from his criminal indictments in New York, Georgia and Washington, D.C.

Michael, who began worked as Trump's executive assistant in the White House in 2018, left her position last year, apparently due to Trump's alleged refusal to comply with federal requests, ABC News reported.

In her discussions with federal investigators, Michael described how close to 90 boxes containing materials from Trump's presidential tenure were relocated, late in 2021, to a basement storage area within Mar-a-Lago. She explained that as requests from the National Archives intensified, she and Trump aide Walt Nauta (who is now also under indictment) transported boxes to Trump's residence for him to review.

Trump eventually agreed to return 15 boxes of materials, which Michael viewed as a positive step, according to sources who spoke with ABC. But after the National Archives found nearly 200 classified documents in those boxes and alerted the FBI, Trump's willingness to cooperate reportedly waned.

He allegedly "asked Michael to help spread a message that no more boxes existed," sources told ABC.

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Rahmani, the former federal prosecutor, said that "Trump's defense team will have a difficult time overcoming evidence of Trump's disregard for the security of classified material and his decision to basically ignore the grand jury subpoena obtained by the DOJ to demand the return of the documents."

Another legal expert, Nina Marino, a partner with the white-collar criminal defense firm Kaplan Marino, pointed out that the government will likely use Michael's testimony to support the prosecution narrative that Trump was "knowingly and intentionally obstructing the federal investigation."

The apparent "combination of blatant disregard with deliberate concealment," Marino suggested, could serve as "strong evidence of guilt for the government in the classified documents case," Marino added. Using such documents as "note paper," she said, demonstrated that "blatant disregard."

As president, Ali noted, Trump had access to the "full suite of intelligence" obtained by the government, which may include information so sensitive that even within the president's national security circle only a few people would have similar access. "No president, whether in office or after leaving, can unilaterally declare classified intelligence to be declassified" without following clearly specified procedures," Ali said.