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White House: Government documents that President Donald J. Trump had accumulated were with him in roughly two dozen boxes in the White House residence. They were to go to the National Archives, but at least some ended up in Florida.

Four days before the end of the Trump presidency, a White House aide peered into the Oval Office and was startled, if not exactly surprised, to see all of the president’s photos still arrayed behind the Resolute Desk as if nothing had changed — guaranteeing the final hours would be a frantic dash mirroring the prior four years.

In the area known as the outer Oval Office, boxes had been brought in to pack up desks used by President Donald J. Trump’s assistant and personal aides. But documents were strewn about, and the boxes stood nearly empty. The table in Mr. Trump’s private dining room off the Oval 

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The office was stacked high with papers until the end, as it had been for his entire term.

Upstairs in the White House residence, there were, however, a few signs that Mr. Trump had finally realized his time was up. Papers he had accumulated in his last several months in office had been dropped into boxes, roughly two dozen of them, and not sent to the National Archives. Aides had even retrieved letters from Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, and given them to Mr. Trump in the final weeks, according to notes described to The New York Times.

Where all of that material ended up is not clear. What is plain, though, is that Mr. Trump’s haphazard handling of government documents — a chronic problem — contributed to the chaos he created after he refused to accept his loss in November 2020, unleashed a mob on Congress, and set the stage for his second impeachment. His unwillingness to let go of power, including refusing to return government documents collected while he was in office, has led to a potentially damaging, and entirely avoidable, legal battle that threatens to engulf the former president and some of his aides.

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Although the White House Counsel’s Office had told Mark Meadows, Mr. Trump’s last chief of staff, that the roughly two dozen boxes worth of material in the residence needed to be turned over to the archives, at least some of those boxes, including those with the Kim letters and some documents marked highly classified, were shipped to Florida. There they were stored at various points over the past 19 months in different locations inside Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s members-only club, home, and office, according to several people briefed on the events.

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Those actions, along with Mr. Trump’s protracted refusal to return the documents in Florida to the National Archives, prompted the Justice Department to review the matter early this year. This month, 

prosecutors obtained a warrant to search Mar-a-Lago for remaining materials, including some related to sensitive national security matters. The investigation is active and expanding, according to recent court filings, as prosecutors look into potentially serious violations of the Espionage Act and obstruction of justice.

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Many questions about the mishandling of the documents lead to Mr. Trump, who often treated the presidency as a private business. But people in his orbit also highlight the role of Mr. Meadows, who oversaw what there was of a presidential transition. Mr. Meadows assured aides that the harried packing up of the White House would follow requirements about the preservation of documents, and he said he would make efforts to ensure that the administration complied with the Presidential Records Act, according to people familiar with those conversations.

But as the clock ticked down, Mr. Trump focused on pushing through last-minute pardons and largely ignored the transition he had tried to forestall.

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A spokesman for Mr. Trump did not respond to a request for comment. Mr. Trump himself has denounced the F.B.I. search of Mar-a-Lago as a “witch hunt.” His office has said he had a “standing order” that materials removed from the Oval Office and taken to the White House residence were deemed to be declassified the moment he removed them, although none of the three potential crimes cited in the F.B.I. search warrant depend on whether removed documents are classified.

A lawyer for Mr. Meadows declined to comment.

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In his final speech as president, Mr. Trump declared, “We were not a regular administration.”

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His statement was indisputably accurate. From his first hours in the office, Mr. Trump had always taken a proprietary view of the presidency, 

describing government documents and other property — even his staff — as his possessions. “They’re mine” is how he often put it, former aides said.

But that was not the case. Under the Presidential Records Act, the law that strictly governs the handling of records generated in the Oval Office, every document belonged to taxpayers. Whether the materials were national security briefings, reams of unclassified documents automatically uploaded to a secure server in Pennsylvania, or notes that Mr. Trump routinely ripped up or flushed down the toilet — all were government property to be assessed and, in most cases, transferred as part of the nation’s history to the National Archives.

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