The Justice Department had sought the return of classified documents it believed might still be at Mar-a-Lago before it sent F.B.I. agents this week to look for them.
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By Maggie Haberman, Ben Protess and Glenn Thrush
Former President Donald J. Trump received a subpoena this spring in search of documents that federal investigators believed he had failed to turn over earlier in the year, when he returned boxes of material he had improperly taken with him upon moving out of the White House, three people familiar with the matter said.
The existence of the subpoena helps to flesh out the sequence of events that led to the search of Mr. Trump’s Florida home on Monday by F.B.I. agents seeking classified material they believed might still be there, even after efforts by the National Archives and the Justice Department to ensure that it had been returned.
The subpoena suggests that the Justice Department tried methods short of a search warrant to account for the material before taking the politically explosive step of sending F.B.I. agents unannounced to Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s home and members-only club.
Two people briefed on the classified documents that investigators believe remained at Mar-a-Lago indicated that they were so sensitive in nature, and related to national security, that the Justice Department had to act.
The subpoena was first disclosed by John Solomon, a conservative journalist who has also been designated by Mr. Trump as one of his representatives to the National Archives.
The existence of the subpoena is being used by allies of Mr. Trump to make a case that the former president and his team were cooperating with the Justice Department in identifying and returning the documents in question and that the search was unjustified.
The Justice Department declined to comment. Christina Bobb, a lawyer working for Mr. Trump, did not respond to messages. It is not clear what precise materials the subpoena sought or what documents the former president might have provided in response.
The subpoena factored into a visit that Jay Bratt, the Justice Department’s top counterintelligence official, made with a small group of other federal officials to Mar-a-Lago weeks later, in early June, one of the people said.
The officials met with Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Evan Corcoran. Mr. Trump, who likes to play host and has a long history of trying to charm officials inquiring about his practices, also made an appearance. During the visit, the officials examined a basement storage area where the former president had stowed material that had come with him from the White House.
A few days after the visit, Mr. Bratt emailed Mr. Corcoran and told him to further secure the remaining documents, which were kept in the storage area with a stronger padlock, one of the people said. The email was reported earlier by The Wall Street Journal.
More Coverage of the F.B.I. Search of Trump’s Home
Then, they subpoenaed surveillance footage from the club, which could have given officials a glimpse of who was coming in and out of the storage area, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. They received footage specifically from areas of the club where they believed the documents might have been stored, the person said.
During the same period, investigators were in contact with a number of Mr. Trump’s aides who had some visibility into how he stored and moved documents around the White House and who still worked for him, three people familiar with the events said.
Among those whom investigators reached out to was Molly Michael, Mr. Trump’s assistant in the outer Oval Office who also went to work for him at Mar-a-Lago, three people familiar with the outreach said.
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