Donald Trump complained that the seizure by FBI agents of his passports showed investigators went wild as they searched his Florida compound, but new information about how and where the documents were found could spell major trouble for the former president, legal experts tell NBC News .
In a footnote to Tuesday’s court filing rejecting Trump’s request for a special master to sort through the evidence that was seized from his Mar-a-Lago property, Justice Department officials hit back at his claim that it was excessive to take three passports which were later returned.
In accordance with the terms of the Search warrantthe Justice Department said in the filing that “the government seized the contents of a desk drawer which contained classified documents and government records intermingled with other documents.”
“Other documents included two official passports, one of which had expired, and one personal passport, which had expired,” he said. “The location of the passports is relevant evidence in an investigation into the unauthorized withholding and mishandling of national defense information.”
NBC News legal analyst Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney, said the reason the passports are “relevant evidence” is clear — they point directly to Trump.
“In most searches, you are looking for ID documents to tie a suspect to the evidence you are looking for – photographs, IDs, utility bills. If you find the contraband in the same room as the ID documents identity, there is a fair inference that the person had dominion and control over the documents,” said McQuade, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School.
According to the Justice Department, the drawer with the classified documents and passports was in Trump’s “Office 45” at Mar-a-Lago.
“Finding the passports side-by-side with the classified documents suggests he handled them himself,” McQuade said.
It also makes it difficult for Trump to argue that movers or aides mishandled the documents or that he was unaware of their presence, McQuade said, saying, “That’s pretty damning evidence.”
NBC News legal analyst Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor, agreed.
“The two things we always take when executing search warrants are evidence of crime and evidence of ownership or possession of information,” Kirschner said. “If there are utility bills at the scene, you seize them, not because they are proof of a crime, but because they are proof of possession and ownership.”
Trump complained a week after the August 8 search that FBI agents had ‘stolen my three passports’ – just after a Justice Department official emailed Trump’s lawyers to say that the Ministry of Justice had the passports and returned them.
In his filing calling for a special master, Trump’s attorneys argued that in returning the passports, investigators acknowledged they “had not been validly seized.” His the legal team responded at the Justice Department filing Wednesday night, with arguments on Master’s special request scheduled for Thursday.
Trump’s lawyer, Christina Bobb, told Fox News last month that the seizure of the passports “will show the level of daring they have.”
“I think it shows how aggressive they were, how overreaching they were, that they were willing to go over all four corners of the mandate and take whatever they felt was appropriate or thought they could take. “, Bobb said.
Government filing Tuesday noted that the search warrant expressly authorized officers to take items that were mixed with “documents with classification marks”, and McQuade and Kirschner agreed that there was probably no reason for the government to s clings to passports, which they claim were photographed and copied before being returned to Trump’s lawyers. “You just need to be able to document that the passport was found next to the contraband,” Kirschner said.
McQuade said investigators returned the passports “because they got what they needed from them.”
Tom Winter contributed.