Special counsel probed Trump Mar-a-Lago trip that aides ‘kept quiet’ weeks before FBI search: Sources

Special counsel probed Trump Mar-a-Lago trip that aides ‘kept quiet’ weeks before FBI search: Sources
Donald Trump is addressing the Faith and Freedom Road to Majority Conference at the Washington Hilton in Washington, DC, on June 22, 2024. (Andrew Leyden/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

(WASHINGTON) — A trip to Mar-a-Lago taken by former President Donald Trump that aides allegedly “kept quiet” just weeks before FBI agents searched the property for classified materials in his possession raised suspicions among special counsel Jack Smith’s team as a potential additional effort to obstruct the government’s classified documents investigation, sources familiar with the matter told ABC News.

The previously unreported visit, which allegedly took place July 10-12 in the summer of 2022, was raised in several interviews with witnesses, sources familiar with the matter said, as investigators sought to determine whether it was part of Trump’s broader alleged effort to withhold the documents after receiving a subpoena demanding their return.

At least one witness who worked closely with the former president recalled being told at the time of the trip that Trump was there “checking on the boxes,” according to sources familiar with what the witness told investigators.

Trump pleaded not guilty last year to 40 criminal counts related to his handling of classified materials after leaving the White House, after prosecutors said he repeatedly refused to return hundreds of documents containing classified information and took steps to thwart the government’s efforts to get them back. His longtime aide, Walt Nauta, and Mar-a-Lago property manager Carlos De Oliveira pleaded not guilty to related charges.

Trump has denied all charges and denounced the probe as a political witch hunt.

Gathering evidence

Several witnesses who spoke to investigators described the trip as highly unusual, given that Trump typically spends the summer months at his Bedminster club in New Jersey, and because Trump’s living quarters at his Mar-a-Lago property were under construction at the time of the visit, sources said.

Other witnesses who were questioned by Smith’s team said they were led to believe that Trump returned to check on the status of the renovations, said sources.

Just weeks before the trip, as ABC News has previously reported, Trump allegedly had the lock on a closet in his residence changed while his attorney was in Mar-a-Lago’s basement searching for classified documents in a storage room that he was told contained all such documents. The FBI failed to check the locked closet in Trump’s residence when they searched the estate in August 2022, which some investigators later came to believe should have been done.

The trip came as investigators were gathering evidence that Trump continued to possess classified documents, and followed a separate subpoena in late June 2022 seeking surveillance footage from Mar-a-Lago that showed aides to Trump moving boxes between a storage room in the resort and his residence.

The trip also followed a similar instance of unplanned travel to Mar-a-Lago by Nauta, where, according to a superseding indictment, he is alleged to have conspired with Mar-a-Lago property manager Carlos De Oliveira to attempt to delete security camera footage.

Contacted by ABC News, Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung, without providing evidence, accused prosecutors of lying and illegally leaking material.

“The entire documents case was a political sham from the very beginning and it should be thrown out entirely,” Cheung said in comments to ABC News.

A spokesperson for the special counsel’s office declined to comment to ABC News.

‘Keeping this one quiet’

At the time of Trump’s trip in July 2022, some staff expressed confusion as to where Trump would even stay on the property, sources said, given the renovations that his living quarters were undergoing.

“They were keeping this one quiet … nobody knew about this trip,” one witness with direct knowledge of the trip told investigators, according to sources familiar with the witness’ statements.

Trump left New Jersey on July 9, 2022, for a campaign rally in Anchorage, Alaska, and was scheduled to return to New Jersey following that event, according to aircraft manifests described by sources to ABC News. But the plans changed in the days immediately leading up to the trip and he decided to fly to Florida instead, updated aircraft manifests of the trip show.

According to sources, investigators involved in the case identified what they believe to be a series of unusual steps taken by Trump and members of his inner circle to ensure the trip stayed under the radar.

Nauta, who traveled with Trump on the trip, sent a number of text messages to close staff members indicating that the Florida visit was to be kept quiet, according to sources familiar with the contents of the messages.

“I’m pretty sure [Trump] wants minimal people around on Monday,” Nauta texted one longtime Trump employee just one day before Trump arrived in Florida, according to a message sources detailed to ABC News.

And on July 8, when one Trump Organization employee reached out to Nauta wanting to confirm rumors of a Trump visit so proper preparations could be made, Nauta made clear he wanted the trip to remain “discreet,” sources familiar with the communications said. The sources said Nauta sent a text message to the employee that included emojis with zippers over the mouth, which is often used to convey a secret.

Nauta also wrote a message to De Oliveira on July 7 that said “Coming down to FL soon” with shushing emojis to indicate the visit be kept quiet, according to another text message described by sources.

De Oliveira initially told investigators that he had no knowledge of Trump’s trip to Florida — but the special counsel has evidence that supports the allegation De Oliveira was well aware of Trump’s travel plans, corroborated in part by security camera footage that shows Trump and De Oliveira together, according to sources familiar with De Oliveira’s meetings with investigators.

De Oliveira later told investigators he recalled seeing the former president very briefly during that trip, sources said.

Smith’s interest in the trip adds to the list of instances in which investigators appeared to suspect Trump was seeking to obstruct their probe.

Last month, a court filing from Smith’s team revealed additional steps prosecutors believed Trump and his associates had taken to obstruct their probe, alleging that after Trump was informed by his attorney of a government subpoena for video footage from Mar-a-Lago, Trump instructed aides to return several boxes they had previously removed from the storage room in the club’s basement — without being caught on camera.

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