Possibility of Obstruction Looms Over Trump After Thwarted Efforts to Recover Documents

Unredacted portions of the affidavit point to a crime that has been overshadowed amid disputes over classified information.

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By Charlie Savage

WASHINGTON — When the Justice Department proposed redactions to the affidavit underlying the warrant used to search former President Donald J. Trump’s residence, prosecutors made clear that they feared the former president and his allies might take any opportunity to intimidate witnesses or otherwise illegally obstruct their investigation.

“The government has well-founded concerns that steps may be taken to frustrate or otherwise interfere with this investigation if facts in the affidavit were prematurely disclosed,” prosecutors said in the brief.

The 38-page affidavit, released on Friday, asserted that there was “probable cause to believe that evidence of obstruction will be found at” Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago compound, indicating that prosecutors had evidence suggesting efforts to impede the recovery of government documents.

Since the release of the search warrant, which listed three criminal laws as the foundation of the investigation, one — the Espionage Act — has received the most attention. Discussion has largely focused on the spectacle of the F.B.I. finding documents marked as highly classified and Mr. Trump’s questionable claims that he had declassified everything held at his residence.

But by some measures, the crime of obstruction is a threat to Mr. Trump or his close associates that is as much or even more serious. The version investigators are using, known as Section 1519, was part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a broad set of reforms enacted in 2002 after financial scandals at companies like Enron, Arthur Andersen and WorldCom.

The heavily redacted affidavit provides new details of the government’s efforts to retrieve and secure the material in Mr. Trump’s possession, highlighting how prosecutors may be pursuing a theory that the former president, his aides or both might have illegally obstructed an effort of well over a year to recover sensitive documents that do not belong to him.

To convict someone of obstruction, prosecutors need to prove two things: that a defendant knowingly concealed or destroyed documents, and that he did so to impede the official work of any federal agency or department. Section 1519’s maximum penalty is 20 years in prison, which is twice as long as the penalty under the Espionage Act.

Julie O’Sullivan, a Georgetown University law professor who specializes in white-collar crime, said the emerging timeline of the government’s repeatedly stymied attempts to retrieve all the documents, coupled with claims by Mr. Trump that he did nothing wrong because he had declassified all the documents in his possession, raised significant legal peril for him.

“He is making a mistake in believing that it matters whether it’s top secret or not,” she said. “He is essentially conceding that he knew he had them.” If so, she added, then not giving them back was “obstructing the return of these documents.”

The cloud of potential obstruction carries echoes of the Russia investigation led by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. That inquiry ended up being as much about how Mr. Trump had sought to impede his work, as it was about scrutinizing Russia’s efforts to manipulate the 2016 election and the nature of myriad Russian links to people associated with Mr. Trump’s campaign.

Explore Our Coverage of the Trump Investigations

In a coincidence, the Justice Department on Thursday revealed an internal document commissioned by then-Attorney General William P. Barr that laid out purported justifications for his pronouncement in 2019 that Mr. Trump was cleared of obstruction suspicions, despite every episode recounted in the Mueller report. This time, however, the Justice Department is not overseen by a Trump loyalist.

Because of the heavy redactions in the newly released affidavit, it remains unclear whether there is any other investigation or official agency effort that law enforcement officials think Mr. Trump or people in his circle might have obstructed in refusing to turn over the government documents. But at a minimum, it is clear that the government’s efforts to retrieve the records have repeatedly been impeded.

The timeline laid out in the redacted affidavit, which fills in several gaps in the public understanding, traces back to May 6, 2021. On that day, as The New York Times reported this week, the general counsel for the National Archives first reached out to Mr. Trump’s designated representatives to the agency and asked for the return of about two dozen boxes of missing documents.

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