The National Archives has told the Justice Department that a lawyer representing former President Donald J. Trump indicated to the archives last year that boxes Mr. Trump had taken to his Mar-a-Lago home from the White House included only nonclassified material like newspaper clippings, according to a person briefed on the matter.
The message was relayed to the National Archives last September by Patrick Philbin, a former top White House lawyer who was representing Mr. Trump’s post-presidency office, to the top lawyer at the archives, Gary Stern, according to two people briefed on the matter.
Mr. Philbin indicated to Mr. Stern that the information was based on what Mr. Trump’s final White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, believed to be the contents in the boxes, the people said. Mr. Stern memorialized his own description of the exchange in an email, one of the people said.
It is unclear when the archives told the Justice Department about the conversation. But it is part of the evidence gathered by investigators showing how Mr. Trump’s representatives gave government officials misleading information about what Mr. Trump had taken with him when he left the White House.
Roughly four months after Mr. Philbin’s conversation with Mr. Stern, Mr. Trump returned 15 boxes of material he had taken from the White House to the archives. Officials at the archives soon determined that the boxes contained more than 150 documents marked as classified, igniting intense concern at the Justice Department and helping to set off the criminal investigation that led F.B.I. agents to swoop into Mr. Trump’s Florida residence, Mar-a-Lago, last month seeking to recover more.
In all, the government has recovered more than 300 documents with classified markings from Mr. Trump since he left office: that first batch of documents returned in January, another set provided by Mr. Trump’s aides to the Justice Department in June and about 100 seized by the F.B.I. in the search.
Mr. Trump and the Justice Department are in the midst of a court fight over the classified documents found in the search. A federal judge has ordered the Justice Department not to use those documents in its criminal investigation pending a review by an independent arbiter of whether the material is protected by executive privilege or attorney-client privilege.
The Washington Post first reported on Friday that Mr. Philbin had told the archives that there were no sensitive or classified materials in the boxes.
Mr. Trump had told advisers a version of what Mr. Meadows is said to have told Mr. Philbin, that the boxes contained news clippings and personal effects, according to people familiar with the events. Aides to Mr. Trump had told others that there were only 12 boxes of material, which is what Mr. Meadows is also said to have relayed to Mr. Philbin.
A spokesman for Mr. Trump did not respond to a message seeking comment. A spokeswoman for Mr. Philbin declined to comment.
Mr. Meadows went to Mar-a-Lago and discussed the boxes of material with Mr. Trump during the summer of 2021, as archives officials were trying to get the materials sent to them. Mr. Philbin was trying to facilitate the return while avoiding being drawn further into the dispute, according to two people familiar with the events.
In a statement, Ben Williamson, a spokesman for Mr. Meadows, said, “Mr. Meadows did not personally review the boxes at Mar-a-Lago and did not have a role in examining or verifying what was or wasn’t contained within them.”
Last year, the National Archives, concerned that it did not have all the presidential records from Mr. Trump’s administration, tried for months to have Mr. Trump hand over any documents that had been taken to Mar-a-Lago. After a lengthy back-and-forth, Mr. Trump early this year handed over the 15 boxes, which in addition to the classified documents included news clippings, other presidential records, gifts, clothing and random objects.
The National Archives alerted the Justice Department to the fact that classified documents had been held outside secure channels. The archives and the Justice Department remained skeptical that Mr. Trump had returned all the presidential records taken from the White House, setting off another lengthy bout with Mr. Trump’s lawyers.
Even after Mr. Trump’s lawyers returned another set of classified documents in June — and after one of the lawyers signed a document confirming that all the material the Justice Department had been seeking had been returned — investigators came to believe that more sensitive material remained at Mar-a-Lago.
In August, federal agents carried out a court-authorized search at Mar-a-Lago that turned up additional government material, including documents relating to some of the country’s most closely guarded secrets.