Federal agents removed top-secret documents when they searched the Florida residence of former President Donald J. Trump on Monday as part of an investigation into possible violations of the Espionage Act and other laws, according to a Search warrant released on Friday.
FBI agents seized 11 sets of documents in total, including some marked as “classified/TS/SCI” – short for “compartmentalized top secret/sensitive information”, according to an inventory of materials seized during the search. Information classified in this manner is intended to be viewed only at a secure government facility.
It was the latest stunning revelation in the swirling series of investigations into his efforts to retain power after his electoral defeat, his business practices and, in this case, his handling of the government material he took with him when he left the White House.
Search results showed documents designated as closely guarded national secrets were being held at an unsecured resort, Mar-a-Lago, owned and occupied by a former president who has long shown disregard for the careful treatment classified information.
The documents released on Friday also highlighted for the first time the seriousness of the possible crimes being investigated in an investigation that has drawn denunciations from the Justice Department and the FBI. prominent Republicans and fueled the anger of Mr. Trump, the likely 2024 presidential candidate.
In total, officers collected five sets of top secret documents, three sets of secret documents and three sets of confidential documents, according to the inventory. FBI agents also seized files relating to the pardon of Roger J. Stone Jr., a longtime associate of Mr. Trump, and documents on French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as more than a dozen boxes labeled only by number.
The release of the search warrant and inventory highlighted the stakes of the collision between a Justice Department saying it intends to enforce federal law at the highest level and a former president whose Norm-breaking behavior includes exposing an exclusive view of material legally owned by the government.
It’s unclear why Mr. Trump apparently chose to cling to materials that would ignite another legal firestorm around him. But last year he told relatives he considered some presidential documents his personal property. Speaking of his friendly correspondence with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Mr Trump said: “They are mine,” according to a person familiar with the exchange.
Even though the FBI’s inventory of materials seized at Mar-a-Lago indicated that many files had markings such as “top secret”, Mr. Trump said on Friday that he had declassified all the material. Presidents have extensive power to declassify documents, although normally when this happens these markings are removed.
More coverage of the FBI’s search of Trump’s home
But even though Mr. Trump declassified the information before he left office, none of the three potential crimes cited by the department to seek the warrant depend on whether a mishandled document was considered classified.
The warrant said officers would search for material as they investigate potential violations of the Espionage Act, which prohibits the unauthorized retention of defense-related information that could harm the United States or aid an adversary. foreign – a standard that was drafted by Congress before the creation of the modern classification system.
He also cited a federal law that makes it a crime to destroy or conceal a document to obstruct a government investigation, and another law that prohibits the unlawful taking or destruction of government records or records.
The existence of a search warrant does not mean that the Department of Justice has decided to initiate criminal proceedings against anyone. Mr Trump has repeatedly said he has done nothing wrong.
A federal court in Florida unsealed the search warrant and inventory on Friday after a Justice Department request a day earlier to release them. Extracts from the warrant and accompanying inventory were reported earlier in the The Wall Street Journaland the New York Times also obtained them before they were unsealed.
The warrant appears to have given agents wide latitude in searching for materials believed to be improperly stored at Mar-a-Lago, allowing access to “Office 45” and “all storage rooms and other rooms or areas” in the premises which could be used to store documents.
The most informative and sensitive document — the Justice Department’s warrant application, which most likely included an affidavit detailing the evidence who persuaded a judge there were probable grounds to believe a search would find evidence of crimes – was not among the documents the department asked to be unsealed. It is unlikely to go public soon, if ever.
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The documents did little to answer several fundamental questions about the day’s search, including its timing. It took place after months of negotiations between the department and the former president’s lawyers.
The investigation of possible violations of the Espionage Act represents a previously unknown and potentially important dimension of an investigation initiated by the National Archives.
The law includes several provisions that could apply to Mr. Trump’s case, particularly if it is later found that he was grossly negligent in storing the documents, or if he knew that the information that he possessed could harm U.S. interests and still refused to return them to investigators, said Mary McCord, a former senior official in the Justice Department’s National Security Division.
“We are talking about highly classified documents that could seriously harm the national security of the United States, including benefiting foreign agents,” said McCord, now executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Defense and Protection. of Georgetown Law.
The unsealing of the search warrant helped flesh out what is known about why Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, on the advice of the National Security Division, felt compelled to search the home of the ‘former president.
The search was carried out as part of the government’s effort to account for documents that a person briefed on the matter said linked to some of the most highly classified programs run by the United States.
The person told the Times that investigators had become concerned about material that included some of what the government calls “special access programs”, a designation generally reserved for extremely sensitive U.S.-led operations overseas or closely held technologies and capabilities.
The Washington Post reported that some of this material could have been linked to classified “nuclear weapons” documents, which could have been part of the designation of special access programs.
In January, Mr. Trump turned over to the National Archives 15 boxes of documents he had improperly taken with him when he left office. The archives subsequently identified classified material in the boxes and referred the case to the Justice Department, which then convened a grand jury.
But as Monday’s search results seem to show, other government documents remained at Mar-a-Lago. Why Mr. Trump did not return it along with the 15 boxes he donated to the archives in January is unclear. But at some point the Justice Department found out and issued a subpoena this spring demanding the return of certain documents.
The existence of the subpoena suggests that the department tried warrantless methods to account for the material before making the politically explosive decision to dispatch FBI agents unannounced to Mar-a-Lago. .
Jay Bratt, the department’s top counterintelligence official, traveled with a small group of other federal officials to Mar-a-Lago in early June.
There they met with Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Evan Corcoran, and examined a basement storage area where the former president had stored equipment that had come with him from the White House. Mr. Bratt then emailed Mr. Corcoran and told him to further secure the documents in the storage area with a stronger padlock.
Then federal investigators subpoenaed surveillance footage from the club, which could have given officials insight into who was entering and leaving the storage area, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
During the same period, investigators were in contact with a number of Mr. Trump’s aides who knew how he stored and moved documents in the White House and who still worked for him, three people familiar with the sources said. events.
At least one witness gave investigators information that led them to want to press Mr. Trump more for information, according to a person familiar with the investigation.
Federal officials came to believe this summer that Mr. Trump had not relinquished all the material that left the White House with him at the end of his term, according to three people familiar with the investigation.
Last Friday, the Department of Justice requested the search warrant. Early Monday morning, FBI agents arrived at Mar-a-Lago.
Katie Benner contributed report.