Trump, Without the Presidency’s Protections, Struggles for a Strategy

On Tuesday, a Florida judge informed two lawyers representing former President Donald J. Trump, neither of them licensed in the state, that they had bungled routine paperwork to take part in a suit filed following the F.B.I.’s search this month of Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home and private club.

“A sample motion can be found on the Court’s website,” the judge instructed them in her order.

Mr. Trump has projected his usual bravado, and raised millions of dollars online from outraged supporters, since federal agents descended on the property more than two weeks ago and carted off boxloads of material including highly classified documents. But something is different this time — and the errant court filing offered a glimpse into the confusion and uncertainty the investigation has exposed inside Mr. Trump’s camp.

The documents investigation represents the greatest legal threat Mr. Trump has faced in years, and he is going into the battle shorn of the protective infrastructure and constitutional armor of the presidency. After years of burning through lawyers, he has struggled to hire new ones, and has a small group of lawyers of varying experience.

He is facing a Justice Department he no longer controls, run by a by-the-book attorney general, Merrick B. Garland, who has pursued various investigations into Mr. Trump methodically and quietly.

Mr. Trump is serving as his own communications director and strategic adviser, seeking tactical political and in-the-moment public relations victories, sometimes at the risk of stumbling into substantive legal missteps.

One example came late on Monday, when a conservative writer allied with Mr. Trump made public a letter that the National Archives had sent to Mr. Trump’s legal team in May. Spun by Mr. Trump and his allies as evidence that President Biden had played a role in the case after saying he was not involved, the letter confirmed information damaging to the former president’s case, including that Mr. Trump had retained more than 700 pages of documents with classification markings, including some at the most restricted level.

Then, hours after informing Mr. Trump’s lawyers on Tuesday about one basic mistake they had made, the judge handling their request for the appointment of a special master to review the documents seized from Mar-a-Lago came back with some pointed questions. Judge Aileen M. Cannon, who was appointed by Mr. Trump, asked the team to respond by Friday about whether she even had jurisdiction to hear Mr. Trump’s request, and what precisely his motion was asking her to do.

But as has become standard operating practice in Mr. Trump’s world, the primary focus there is not about legal claims, or even political ones, but the state of mind of the man at the center of the crisis. He feels other people’s actions toward him haven’t gotten enough attention, some of his advisers say privately, regardless of whether the facts actually bear out his grievances.

“The Democrats have spent seven years fabricating hoaxes and witch hunts against President Trump, and the recent unprecedented and unnecessary raid is just another example of exactly that,” Taylor Budowich, a spokesman for Mr. Trump, said.

Supporters near Mar-a-Lago the morning after the F.B.I. search on Aug. 8. The former president has raised millions online from outraged supporters since federal agents carted off classified documents that day.Credit…Saul Martinez for The New York Times

For years, Mr. Trump operated from a playbook taught to him in the 1970s by Roy M. Cohn, the ruthless former federal prosecutor and aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy who represented Mr. Trump early in Mr. Trump’s career.

That approach — demonize investigators, intimidate allies to keep them from straying, paint himself as persecuted and depict every criticism as a political witch hunt — was Mr. Trump’s go-to strategy to discredit the investigation into his 2016 campaign’s possible ties to Russia, and in his first impeachment trial.

Yet at the time, he had the lawyers in the White House Counsel’s Office helping to guide him, and a team of experienced legal hands familiar with Washington.

More on the F.B.I. Search of Mar-a-Lago and Other Trump Investigations

  • White House Documents: Former President Donald J. Trump kept more than 700 pages of classified documents, according to a letter from the National Archives. The Justice Department is said to have retrieved more than 300 classified documents from Mr. Trump since he left office.
  • A Chaotic Exit: Mr. Trump’s unwillingness to let go of power helped lead to the failure to turn over government documents in his final days in office.
  • Giuliani in Georgia: Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has been told that he is a target in a criminal investigation into election interference in the state, appeared before an Atlanta grand jury.
  • Invoking the Fifth Amendment: Sitting for a deposition in the New York attorney general’s civil inquiry into his business practices, Mr. Trump repeatedly invoked his constitutional right against self incrimination.

Now, as in the days after he lost the 2020 election, Mr. Trump is relying on an ad hoc team of advisers with varying levels of experience and judgment, and trying to use his political support as both a shield and a weapon to be aimed at the people investigating him.

But even as he fuels outrage in sympathetic media outlets and tries to turn attention to Mr. Biden and the so-called deep state, Mr. Trump is to some extent walking on the phantom limbs of his expired presidency, claiming executive privilege still applies to him even though he’s out of office and maintaining he had a sweeping, standing order to declassify some documents, which his aides have declined to produce.

If the investigation into Mr. Trump’s possible connection with Russia was convoluted or hard for Americans to grasp, this one is not. The documents inquiry is about boxes of papers, storerooms, souvenirs and “top secret” stamps — the kind of identifiable items that Mr. Trump has weaponized to bludgeon opponents, akin to Hillary Clinton’s private email server or Hunter Biden’s laptop.

The documents investigation is also about whether Mr. Trump or his associates may have obstructed the inquiry, according to court papers filed with the search warrant. And despite the bravura, Mr. Trump has betrayed anxiety in private conversations about where this is all leading, people who have spoken to him say.

“He was never subjected to an investigation of this heft and potency prior to his presidency,” said Tim O’Brien, a biographer of Mr. Trump and the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion.

Mr. O’Brien noted that when Mr. Trump was president he learned how to use his powers to protect himself. “Right now he is in the most vulnerable position he has been in, in his life, legally.”

Mr. Trump’s court filing on Monday requesting the special master to review the seized documents was styled as a legal motion, but it sounded more like a news release drafted by Mr. Trump himself.

It was filled with bombastic complaints that the government had long treated Mr. Trump unfairly. The document cited purported examples like “two years of noisy ‘Russian collusion’ investigations.” It also contained Trumpian boasts about the former president being “the clear front-runner” for the 2024 election.

Justice Department officials, who have maintained an open channel with Mr. Trump’s representatives, have said they operate under the assumption that none of his attorneys can speak with authority for the former president, knowing he is liable to change his mind in a moment, or withhold information from his own representatives.

In one respect, Mr. Trump and his current roster of lawyers are fundamentally in lock step. They maintain, without any apparent evidence, that the Justice Department and F.B.I. used the document search at Mar-a-Lago to uncover new information for the widening investigation into his actions leading up to Jan. 6, 2021, when his supporters stormed the Capitol during certification of the 2020 election.

And they maintain, without proof, that Mr. Biden himself has been ordering up all of the investigations to destroy his political opponent, according to three people close to Mr. Trump.

Justice Department officials have repeatedly denied any connection between the Mar-a-Lago search and their other work, and White House officials have told reporters that neither the president nor senior West Wing officials had prior knowledge of the search.

The letter in May from the archives to the Trump legal team said that the Justice Department had sent a request to the archives through the Biden White House for access to the initial 15 boxes of government material that Mr. Trump had turned over to the archives in January. The letter also said that Mr. Biden had deferred to the archivist’s decision, based on consultations with the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, to reject Mr. Trump’s assertion that the material in the boxes was protected by executive privilege.

Mr. Trump is facing a Justice Department led by Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, who has methodically pursued a number of investigations related to the former president.Credit…Sarah Silbiger for The New York Times

Two of Mr. Trump’s most ferocious defenders on the matter are not even on his legal team. Kash Patel, a former Trump White House and Pentagon aide, and John Solomon, who runs a conservative news site and is close to the Trump team, are both representatives for Mr. Trump with the National Archives. Both argued that Mr. Trump had a standing order to declassify documents that went to the president’s residence. Mr. Trump’s aides have provided no evidence that this was the case.

The result, according to people who have worked for him over the years, is that the only real continuity in the defense is Mr. Trump himself, and his demands that his lawyers do what he wants, which is why so many of his legal filings sound as if they were dictated by him.

It is possible that Mr. Trump is the only one who knows what material he took with him from the White House. His concentric circles of political advisers, several layers deep when he held power, are also shrinking. Mr. Trump is thinly staffed as he sits at his private club at Bedminster, N.J., or at Trump Tower in New York City for the summer, and sometimes makes decisions without keeping his close advisers in the know.

To that point, few of Mr. Trump’s advisers appeared to have been aware that Mr. Solomon was publicizing the letter that the archives had sent to Evan Corcoran, one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers. Many of them acknowledged that they had learned of it when reporters began reaching out after Mr. Solomon made it public.

“He’s so impulsive that he does this on his own,” said Alan Marcus, a New Jersey-based consultant who worked for Mr. Trump’s company in the 1990s. Mr. Marcus described Mr. Trump’s approach to much of his life as “ready, fire, aim,” as opposed to something more strategic.

“So much of the ‘ready, fire, aim’ comes when he’s sitting alone,” he said.

Michael S. Schmidt contributed reporting.

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