Court releases partially redacted affidavit for Mar-a-Lago search
U.S. President Donald Trump stands in the colonnade as he is introduced to speak at the White House on Jan. 19, 2018. Photo by Mark Wilson | Getty Images
WASHINGTON — A judge granted the Federal Bureau of Investigation a search warrant for former President Donald Trump’s home earlier this month after agents found 184 documents with classified markings had been kept at Mar-a-Lago.
The property — which hosts Trump’s private residence, a golf club and other housing — is not authorized to store classified or national defense information, according to a partially redacted affidavit released Friday.
The FBI’s request to search sections of Mar-a-Lago earlier this month stemmed from a batch of documents the National Archives received in January from Trump that included more than 700 pages with classified markings.
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The 38-page partially redacted affidavit said federal agents wanted a search warrant because they believed “that additional documents that contain classified [national defense information] or that are Presidential records subject to record retention requirements currently remain” at Mar-a-Lago.
The agents also wrote that there is “probable cause to believe that evidence of obstruction” will be found at Mar-a-Lago.
The unsealed affidavit stated that, of the documents Trump returned to the National Archives after about a year out of office, “(o)f most significant concern was that highly classified records were unfoldered, intermixed with other records, and otherwise unproperly [sic] identified.”
Within the 15 boxes of documents the National Archives received earlier this year, the federal agents found 184 documents with classified markings, including 67 marked confidential, 92 marked secret, 25 marked top secret.
“Several of the documents also contained what appears to be FPOTUS’s handwritten notes,” the affidavit says.
The documents within the boxes held classified markings for special intelligence, a designation “designed to protect technical and intelligence information derived from the monitoring of foreign communications signals.”
“HCS” marked other documents, indicating they were classified to “protect intelligence information derived from clandestine human sources.
Some of the documents were classified under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.
“Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals,” or NOFORN, marked some documents, while “Originator Controlled,” a classification where the person who drafted the document must approve distributing it “beyond pre-approved U.S. entities” marked others.
The affidavit noted that, on June 8, a month before the FBI search took place, a Justice Department attorney sent Trump’s lawyer a letter to reiterate that Mar-a-Lago is “not authorized to store classified information.”
“As I previously indicated to you, Mar-a-Lago does not include a secure location authorized for the storage of classified information,” the DOJ lawyer wrote, according to the affidavit. “As such, it appears that since the time classified documents [redacted section] were removed from the secure facilities at the White House and moved to Mar-a-Lago on or around January 20, 2021, they have not been handled in an appropriate manner or stored in an appropriate location.”
The DOJ lawyer asked Trump’s legal team to secure the room at Mar-a-Lago where the documents had been stored and that all the documents be “preserved in that room in their current condition until further notice.”
The FBI special agent who drafted the affidavit wrote they wanted the documents requesting the search sealed by the court because the documents federal agents wanted to search for were part of an ongoing investigation.
“Premature disclosure of the contents of this affidavit and related documents may have a significant and negative impact on the continuing investigation and may severely jeopardize its effectiveness by allowing criminal parties an opportunity to flee, destroy evidence (stored electronically and otherwise), change patterns of behavior, and notify criminal confederates,” the FBI special agent wrote.
Trump first announced the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago on Aug. 8 by publicly releasing a statement that evening.
Republicans were furious with the FBI for searching the property, with many demanding the Justice Department release more information.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland made a brief public statement on Aug. 11 to say the Department of Justice would ask a judge to unseal the search warrant and the property receipt, which briefly explains what the FBI confiscated during their search.
Garland said at the time he personally approved the decision to seek a search warrant and that the DOJ “does not take such decisions lightly.”
“Where possible it is standard practice to seek less intrusive means as an alternative to a search, and to narrowly scope any search that is undertaken,” Garland said.
Trump and his legal team, who had copies of both documents on Aug. 8 and could have released them, didn’t object to the judge unsealing the two documents.
The search warrant and property receipt were publicly released on Aug. 12, showing that Trump was under investigation for possibly violating the Espionage Act and obstruction of justice.
The three-page property receipt, signed by Trump attorney Christina Bobb on Aug. 8 at 6:19 p.m., showed the FBI confiscated an Executive Grant of Clemency regarding Roger Jason Stone, Jr., a longtime Trump friend and adviser whom the former president pardoned; information on the President of France; binders of photographs; miscellaneous top secret documents; miscellaneous confidential documents; and 26 boxes.
The search warrant showed the FBI believed the documents Trump had a Mar-a-Lago potentially violated a section of the Espionage Act that governs gathering, transmitting or losing defense information. The search warrant cited two other laws that address concealment, removal, or mutilation generally; and destruction, alteration, or falsification of records in federal investigations and bankruptcy.
Trump has released several statements since the search, making various claims about the documents as well as the degree he cooperated with investigators.
In the four-page letter, Wall wrote that after ongoing conversations between the National Archives and Records Administration and Trump’s team during 2021, 15 boxes of records were transferred to NARA in January.
The affidavit released Friday said that the archives began requesting the missing records on May 6, 2021, and continued to request the documents until late December 2021, when “NARA was informed twelve boxes were found and ready for retrieval at” Mar-a-Lago.
Those boxes included “over 100 documents with classification markings, comprising more than 700 pages,” including Special Access Program materials, one of the highest levels of classification in the federal government, according to the NARA letter.
“Although the Presidential Records Act (PRA) generally restricts access to Presidential records in NARA’s custody for several years after the conclusion of a President’s tenure in office,” Wall wrote that she wouldn’t grant the Trump legal team’s request for a further delay before “the FBI and others in the Intelligence Community” could begin reviewing the documents to determine if there was a risk to national security.
“NARA will provide the FBI access to the records in question, as requested by the incumbent President, beginning as early as Thursday, May 12, 2022,” Wall wrote.
FBI agents held a preliminary review of the documents from May 16-18, according to the affidavit.
The DOJ objected to releasing the affidavit in the case, arguing that it could jeopardize the ongoing investigation and possibly endanger witnesses. Several news organizations filed legal briefs for it to be released, saying there was a significant public interest in the case.
Federal Magistrate Judge Bruce E. Reinhart, who is overseeing the case, gave the federal government time to submit a partially redacted version of the affidavit, which he then reviewed.
Reinhart then officially ordered the partially redacted version released Friday.
In a separate document unsealed under Reinhart’s order, the DOJ said its proposed redactions “must remain sealed to protect the safety and privacy of a significant number of civilian witnesses, in addition to law enforcement personnel, as well as to protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation and to avoid disclosure of grand jury material in violation of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.”
The Friday release also included a three-page letter that Corcoran sent on May 25 to Jay Bratt, chief at the Counterintelligence and Export Control Section at the DOJ.
In it, Corcoran wrote that since Trump was “a leader of the Republican Party” and that since the executive branch of government is controlled by President Joe Biden, a Democrat, that “adherence to the rules and long-standing policies is essential.”
“It is critical, given that dynamic, that every effort is made to ensure that actions by DOJ that may touch upon the former President, or his close associates, do not involve politics,” Corcoran wrote.
Trump, he wrote, demonstrated good faith in returning the documents to the National Archives and Records Administration without asserting a legal objection.
Corcoran then criticized the federal government for what he alleges were leaks by NARA and the DOJ, writing “leaks about an investigation that involve the residence of a former President who is still active on the national political scene are particularly troubling.”
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