Newly released emails debunk Trump and allies' attempts to blame the GSA for packing boxes that ended up in Mar-a-lago
By Kristen Holmes and Jeremy Herb, CNN
(CNN) -- When the General Services Administration prepared to ship pallets of material to Florida for former President Donald Trump in July 2021, the federal agency asked Trump aide Beau Harrison to affirm what was in the boxes being shipped.
Harrison, Trump's former assistant for operations, was asked to affirm that everything packed and shipped to Florida was either "required to wind down the office of the Former President or are items that are property of the Federal Government," so it could be covered by transition funding.
Former presidents are allowed to take certain government materials and office equipment required to set up a permanent office away from the White House. But that does not include the sort of classified documents Trump took to Mar-a-Lago -- which are at the center of an ongoing Justice Department criminal probe.
Harrison, one of the handful of aides interviewed by federal investigators in the spring as they sought information on presidential records, returned a letter on "The Office of Donald J. Trump" letterhead stating what was in the boxes.
The email exchange between GSA officials and Harrison is one of more than 100 pages of emails and documents newly released by the GSA that debunk claims from Trump and his allies that the government agency is to blame for packing the boxes containing classified documents that were later recovered by the FBI during the search of his Mar-a-Lago resort in August.
The newly released emails also provide new details underscoring the rushed, chaotic nature of Trump's transition after he spent two months exhausting numerous avenues trying to overturn the 2020 election.
The emails make clear that the boxes had already been packed and sat shrink-wrapped in an empty office space in Arlington, Virginia, as GSA officials planned logistics to ship the five pallets of boxes -- including 30 banker boxes similar to those recovered by the FBI at Mar-a-Lago -- to Florida.
The released communications, which were first reported by Bloomberg News, outline how boxes, including 1,400 pounds of "document boxes," traveled from the White House to Florida, from inventories of the purchase of boxes and shipping materials to photos of the new office space Trump's team would inhabit.
It remains unclear whether anything in the boxes that GSA shipped contained the government documents in the 15 boxes sent to the National Archives in January or the tens of thousands of documents the FBI retrieved in August -- materials now at the heart of the criminal investigation into the classified material found at Mar-a-Lago.
But the new cache of email adds new detail showing how documents from the Trump administration made their way to Florida -- and directly debunks attempts Trump and his allies have made to defend the former President by blaming GSA.
In an interview on Fox News on August 12, four days after the FBI search, former Trump defense official Kash Patel claimed the GSA was responsible for the documents being at Trump's Florida home.
"Even if (the documents were) classified ... they'll never meet the burden of intent because the president didn't pack it up and take it out himself, the GSA has said they did it and they made a mistake," Patel said. The GSA has never said they packed the boxes.
"They packed them," Trump said in an interview with Sean Hannity on September 23.
A spokesman for Trump did not directly address how these emails dispute claims made by the former president and allies, and instead attacked the Biden administration.
"A routine and necessary process has been leveraged by power-hungry partisan bureaucrats to intimidate and silence those who have dared to support President Trump and his America First agenda," said Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich. "Why? Because Democrats have done nothing to deliver for the American people and they are left scrambling to fabricate a new witch-hunt to distract from their abject failures."
A 300-pound portrait
In emails throughout 2021, however, career officials at the GSA outlined to Trump's aides what could and could not be included in the shipments GSA would send to Florida -- underscoring that the federal agency was relying on Trump's aides to assess the contents being shipped.
While the transition team worked with the GSA to facilitate the move, concern inside the National Archives over missing presidential documents was growing. The National Archives alerted Trump's lawyers in May 2021 that Trump's letters with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un -- and two dozen boxes of records -- were missing.
But documents were never raised in the logistics email exchanges.
Instead, they focused at times on what items could and could not be shipped to Florida on the federal government's dime. In particular, a 300-pound portrait of Trump that had been gifted to the former President led to multiple rounds of back and forth, with the GSA ultimately declining to ship the item, deeming it "personal property."
At one point, the GSA outgoing transition director sent the Trump aides guidance on what was allowed to be sent.
"If the item is considered property of the Former President then it should not be shipped using Transition Funds. If the item is considered property of the Federal Government then it should go to NARA or GSA," Kathy Geisler wrote in an email and attached the guidance on gifts. "I just wanted to make sure we had an understanding of what you are allowed to ship using Transition funds."
The gigantic portrait was sent to an aide's home to eventually ship to the former President's resort.
In the email exchange, Trump's director of correspondence Desiree Thompson Sayle asked Geisler to point out where in the federal code she was referring to. "I want to ensure that we are in compliance, and the attached appears to be general guidance on what gifts (foreign and domestic) can be accepted by a government employee or elected official," she wrote.
"Working with NARA and GSA, I am in full compliance with the final disposition of gifts. So much so, we are loading the large portrait received after the 21st on a Penske truck to transport to my house so I can put it on my moving van," Sayle added.
Missing deadlines and disorganization
It wasn't until mid-January -- just nine days before President Joe Biden's inauguration -- that Trump's staff began setting up a post presidential life for the former President following a plan signed off on by former chief of staff Mark Meadows. Following the same pattern of past presidential transitions, GSA would provide the funds and support to help with the transition and setting up a post-presidential office.
Around the time Meadows signed the plan, White House aides described a chaotic and unsure environment with a President more focused on overturning the 2020 election than beginning his next chapter. These circumstances lead to a delayed, unorganized and nontraditional transition, made apparent in the trove of emails.
The chaotic environment continued after Trump vacated the White House. In July 2021, a flurry of late-night emails show staff scrambling unsuccessfully to get the boxes sent off on the final night the outgoing team would be allowed to use transition funds to assist the move, eventually having to use other resources.
After the boxes were to be picked up and Trump's team had long gone to Florida, there was yet another snag in August -- one pallet was the wrong size and couldn't fit on the freight elevator. The event delayed the delivery again, the emails show, and resulted in an intern being flown back from the Sunshine State to repack the pallets and prepare them to be sent to Mar-a-Lago, where they finally arrived mid-September.
"My intern is flying back to DC tomorrow, and he can repack the pallets in Crystal City," Sayle wrote to GSA. "Before I send him to pick up a roll of shrink wrap from Uhaul and plan to head over, can you tell me if there is AC on the 12th floor?"
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correctly reference the General Services Administration.
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