Former President Donald J. Trump hired people to search three of his properties after being directed by a federal judge to look harder for any classified material still in his possession, and they did not find anything, according to two people familiar with the events.
The searches, which were completed around Thanksgiving, were conducted at Mr. Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, N.J.; at Trump Tower in New York; and in a storage area at Mar-a-Lago, his private club and residence in Florida, according to the people familiar with the events.
The New York Times reported in October that Justice Department officials had told the former president’s lawyers that they believed he might have more classified materials that were not returned in response to a subpoena issued in May. The F.B.I. searched Mar-a-Lago in August for additional classified documents and other presidential records.
After the warning from the Justice Department, a debate ensued among Mr. Trump’s lawyers about whether to bring in an independent firm to conduct a search.
The Washington Post reported earlier that the searches had taken place.
Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump, said in a statement that the former president and “his counsel continue to be cooperative and transparent, despite the unprecedented, illegal and unwarranted attack against President Trump and his family by the weaponized Department of Justice.”
More on the Trump Documents Inquiry
The department is investigating the former president’s handling of thousands of government documents, including more than 300 classified ones, that were taken from the White House at the end of his term and were found at Mar-a-Lago. Prosecutors are also seeking to determine whether Mr. Trump obstructed the government’s repeated efforts to retrieve the materials.
When the Justice Department warned that it believed Mr. Trump still had documents in his possession, a lawyer whom he had hired a short time earlier, Christopher M. Kise, suggested along with other lawyers working for Mr. Trump that they engage an outside firm, according to people familiar with the events.
A cadre of other Trump lawyers were resistant to the idea; among them was Boris Epshteyn, a communications adviser who has positioned himself as an in-house counsel on some of Mr. Trump’s legal entanglements. The dispute led to Mr. Kise’s standing in Mr. Trump’s circle diminishing for weeks, according to several people close to the former president.
More recently, Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell of Federal District Court in Washington, who oversees grand jury investigations, directed Mr. Trump’s lawyers to essentially search more carefully for any remaining documents. Other lawyers in Mr. Trump’s circle took on the issue and hired a firm, according to one of the people familiar with the matter.
But while the Justice Department had continued to have questions about documents that might remain at Mar-a-Lago — and while some people close to Mr. Trump believed another search warrant might be executed — a person familiar with the discussions among federal officials said there was no recent probable cause by which to obtain a warrant for Bedminster or Trump Tower.
The National Archives repeatedly asked last year about the status of some materials that it should have received, such as correspondence with Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, as well as about two dozen boxes that were deemed presidential records at the end of Mr. Trump’s term.
Archives officials contacted several people to try to facilitate the return of the documents, including former White House Counsel’s Office lawyers working as Mr. Trump’s representatives with the agency. The former president maintained to several advisers that the boxes were filled with news clippings and personal effects; archives officials explained that news clippings can be considered presidential records.
Alex Cannon, a lawyer who had worked with Mr. Trump in various capacities, became involved in fall 2021 and tried to help the archives officials retrieve the material.
Mr. Cannon warned others in Mr. Trump’s circle not to go through the boxes themselves because it was unclear what was in them, and people might require security clearances. At one point, as Mr. Trump sought National Archives documents related to the investigation into whether his 2016 campaign conspired with Russian officials, he proposed that his lawyers suggest a trade with the archives: what he sought in exchange for the documents he had.
The lawyers declined to engage that suggestion, and Mr. Cannon continued to try to push for the documents’ return to the archives.
Eric Herschmann, a lawyer who had worked as a top adviser in the Trump White House, had an informal conversation with Mr. Trump. People familiar with the discussion characterized it as Mr. Herschmann speaking as a friend and urging the former president to return the boxes, suggesting that he could be subject to legal trouble by keeping them, especially if they contained classified material.
That possibility became reality in January, when after archives officials retrieved boxes that Mr. Trump had gone through over several days last December. The officials opened the boxes and discovered a number of classified documents. The Justice Department became involved.
When Mr. Cannon raised the prospect with Mr. Trump that officials were uncertain that they had everything returned, the former president told him to tell the officials that he had given everything back, according to people briefed on the matter. Mr. Cannon refused to do so, and soon stopped being involved.