5 takeaways from the Mar-a-Lago search affidavit


Journalists gather outside the Paul S. Rogers Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in downtown West Palm Beach, Fla., to read a heavily blackout document released by The Justice Department Friday, Aug. 26, 2022. The 32-page affidavit, even in its heavily redacted form, offers the most detailed description to date of the government records being stored at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property long after he left the White House and reveals the gravity of the government’s concerns that the documents were there illegally. (AP Photo/Jim Rassol)

(The Hill) – A heavily redacted version of the affidavit that convinced a federal judge to approve a search warrant to search former President Donald Trump’s Florida home was released on Friday.

Despite numerous redactions necessary to protect “a broad range of civilian witnesses,” according to the Department of Justice, the document does shed some light on the search.

In particular, it indicates Trump had a much larger collection of classified documents than previously known, including some of the most sensitive secrets careful storage of records is designed to protect.

Here is what we’ve learned – and what we still don’t know – from the affidavit. 

Agents believed Mar-a-Lago housed more classified documents, evidence of ‘obstruction’

The search of Mar-a-Lago earlier this month — and the affidavit justifying it — shows that investigators believed more classified documents were being housed at Trump’s residence even after the government previously retrieved more than 180 classified documents. 

The unredacted portions of the affidavit make this conclusion plain: “There is probable cause to believe that additional documents that contain classified (National Defense Information) or that are Presidential records subject to record retention requirements currently remain at the PREMISES (sic),” the agent states in the affidavit. 

The most eye-popping statute cited in the warrant, the Espionage Act, deals with the mishandling of national defense information.

The agent goes on to say that there was probable cause to believe that “evidence of obstruction” would be found at Mar-a-Lago.

The newly unsealed court record shows the DOJ repeatedly informed Trump’s lawyers that Mar-a-Lago was “not authorized to store classified information.” According to the affidavit, DOJ lawyers, as recently as June, reiterated that point to Trump’s counsel, as well as a request to secure any remaining records on the premises.

“We ask that the room at Mar-a-Lago where the documents had been stored be secured and that all of the boxes that were moved from the White House to Mar-a-Lago (along with any other items in that room) be preserved in that room in their current condition until further notice,” reads the June 8 letter from DOJ to Trump’s attorneys. 

Extensive redactions leave DOJ’s ‘probable cause’ basis largely unknown

One of the most heavily redacted sections of the affidavit pertains to evidence that led investigators to believe additional classified material was at Mar-a-Lago. 

Toward the end of the document, a subheading reads: “There is Probable Cause to Believe That Documents Containing Classified NDI and Presidential Records Remain at the Premises.”

What follows are seven fully redacted paragraphs, totaling roughly three pages, followed by the agent’s stated belief that at least four rooms in Mar-a-Lago were not authorized to store classified information or materials that fall under “national defense information.”

In an apparent reference to the redacted material, the agent then states: “As described above, evidence of the SUBJECT OFFENSES has been stored in multiple locations at the PREMISES.”

In keeping with department policy, officials said the redactions helped to shield key investigatory details and grand jury information.

Although the unsealed portions of the affidavit shed some new light on aspects of the probe, the extensive redactions that were applied to this section of the document mean that much of the underlying facts supporting the DOJ’s basis for carrying out the search of Trump’s residence remain largely unknown to the public.

Trump mischaracterized level of cooperation with federal officials

Trump has sought to characterize the search of his home as an unnecessary “break-in” after his team was in lengthy negotiations with both the National Archives and DOJ.

In prior statements, Trump noted that he put a larger lock on his storage room at Mar-a-Lago at the request of the government – “We agreed. They were shown the secured area, and the boxes themselves.”

But the interaction does not appear to be as friendly as Trump suggested.

“They have not been handled in an appropriate manner or stored in an appropriate location,” the DOJ wrote in the letter asking for the lock and the preservation of those records.

The affidavit indicates the National Archives first reached out about retrieving records as early as May 6, 2021 – just a few months after Trump left office. But it wasn’t until December that Trump’s team indicated it had boxes of documents ready for pick up.

Security moves in a golf cart at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022, in Palm Beach, Fla. The FBI searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate as part of an investigation into whether he took classified records from the White House to his Florida residence. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

And while Trump has relayed surprise by the execution of a search warrant, his legal team seemed to understand there could be pending charges in a May letter that followed receipt of a subpoena earlier that month.

His lawyer sought to push back on the idea that Trump could even face charges as a former president.

“Any attempt to impose criminal liability on a President or former President that involves his actions with respect to documents marked classified would implicate grave constitutional separation-of-powers issues,” Evan Corcoran wrote.

But he cites only one law to back his claim that “unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents or material does not apply to the President.”

That particular statute wasn’t cited in the warrant, however, as the government is relying on other statutes, including the Espionage Act, which only require mishandling national defense information that could be used to injure the United States.

The affidavit offers new details on classified records previously recovered from Trump

The affidavit points to a review of documents recovered from Mar-a-Lago in January as a basis for the search earlier this month.

It reveals Trump had far more classified documents than was previously known.

The affidavit indicates that among 15 boxes handed over to the National Archives, there were 184 classified documents, including 25 deemed to be particularly sensitive. These contained top secret information such as those gained from “clandestine human sources,” information prohibited from being shared with foreign governments, and information obtained by monitoring “foreign communications signals.”

When the January recovery became public in February, Trump released a statement saying the National Archives did not “find” anything.

However, Archives actually referred the matter to the Justice Department given the wide array of classified materials found in those initial boxes.

“It appears, based on the affidavit unsealed this morning, that among the improperly handled documents at Mar-a-Lago were some of our most sensitive intelligence,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner (R-Virginia) said in a statement. 

Why Trump held on to classified materials is a mystery

Trump’s reasons for holding on to dozens of classified and top-secret documents more than a year after leaving office is still unclear, but the affidavit underscored the messy nature of the former president’s record keeping.

The affidavit indicated that the documents recovered during an initial search in January found classified and top-secret documents were intermixed with other materials in boxes.

Former administration officials have spoken publicly about the haphazard nature of document organization in the final days of the Trump White House, and he was known to discard or rip up documents throughout his time in the White House despite strict rules about preservation.

Multiple former Trump administration officials, including former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have said they did not take any classified materials with them when they left office even as they criticized the FBI for searching Mar-a-Lago.

Trump has maintained he could declassify documents unilaterally upon leaving office, allowing him to take them with him to Florida. But former administration officials and President Joe Biden have rejected that theory as nonsense.

“Come on,” Biden said dismissively Friday when asked about Trump’s claim.

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