Trump Mar-a-Lago search affidavit revealed: What we learned — and the questions that remain

Unsealed document suggests ‘obstruction,’ secret sources, and torn up records

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Friday 26 August 2022 20:07 BST
Guest lists sensitive documents Trump could have been holding at Mar-a-Lago

It’s finally here, answering some questions, but leaving others tantalisingly open.

On Friday, a heavily redacted FBI affidavit was released outlining the agency’s rationale for obtaining a warrant to search former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence on 8 August, part of the bureau’s criminal investigation into the mishandling of White House documents.

Federal judge Bruce Reinhart ordered the release of the affidavit on Thursday, over the objection of the Justice Department, which argued the documents “would serve as a roadmap to the government’s ongoing investigation.”

Indeed, the 38-page document does provide key clues about where the DOJ’s document probe into Trump is heading, but there are plenty of questions that remain unanswered, buried in a sea of black redaction ink.

Here’s what you need to know about the affidavit.

Top secret material, by the golf course

In May of 2022, at the referral of the National Archives and Records Administration (Nara), the FBI began reviewing 15 boxes of White House documents that had been taken to Mar-a-Lago. What they found inside was alarming.

The cache of materials contained “newspapers, magazines, printed news articles, photos, miscellaneous print-outs, notes, presidential correspondence, personal and post-presidential records and ‘a lot of classified records.’”

“Of most significant concern,” the Nara said in its referral, “was that highly classified records were unfoldered, intermixed with other records, and otherwise unproperly identified.”

According to the FBI affidavit, 14 of those 15 boxes contained highly sensitive material. Among the 184 documents found inside, 67 were marked confidential, 92 were marked secret, and 25 were marked top secret, a classification that denotes, as the special agent authoring the affidavit put it, “grave damage to the national security” if they ever got out.

The FBI sought to take the extraordinary step to search Mr Trump’s home because “there is probable cause to believe that additional documents that contain classified NDI [national defence information]” might “currently remain” at Mar-a-Lago.

It also argued in its search petition that there might be evidence of violations of the Espionage Act, a law that concerns the mishandling of national security information.

‘Evidence of obstruction will be found’

The FBI was looking for more than just records stored in the wrong place. The affidavit points to the fact that they suspect a cover-up may have taken place.

“There is also probable cause to believe that evidence of obstruction will be found,” the Washington, DC-based FBI special agent writing the document mentioned.

This, in addition to potential violations of the Espionage Act and other federal laws, could be a separate crime in itself.

Secret human sources of information

Part of the reason the FBI was so keen to secure the documents held at Mar-a-Lago was because they were concerned the papers might reveal “clandestine human sources” the federal government relies on for intelligence gathering, according to the affidavit.

In arguing to seal the affidavit materials, the government also hinted at how it came to investigate Mar-a-Lago in the first place. DOJ lawyers wanted to keep the full affidavit from going public to protect “a significant number of civilian witnesses” who have informed their inquiry.

“The government must protect the identity of witnesses at this stage of the investigation to ensure their safety,” DOJ lawyers said in a related court filing, noting that the individuals could face “retaliation, intimidation, or harassment, and even threats to their physical safety,” threats that were “not hypothetical in this case.”

In its list of reasons for requested redactions, the government also flagged “agent safety,” over concerns that the FBI agents involved in the case could face threats or harassment.

Mar-a-Lago is not ‘secure’

Despite the extremely sensitive nature of the White House documents being kept at the president’s house, the affidavit argues the papers were not being stored securely.

“Mar-a-Lago does not include a secure location authorized for the storage of classified information,” a June attached letter from the DOJ to one of Mr Trump’s lawyers reads, adding, “They have not been handled in an appropriate manner or stored  in an appropriate location.”

A fight over Trump’s classification powers

Mr Trump, for his part, maintains he did nothing wrong, releasing a rambling statement on Friday on his Truth Social network.

“Affidavit heavily redacted!!! Nothing mentioned on "Nuclear," a total public relations subterfuge by the FBI & DOJ, or our close working relationship regarding document turnover - WE GAVE THEM MUCH,” he said. “Judge Bruce Reinhart should NEVER have allowed the Break-In of my home. He recused himself two months ago from one of my cases based on his animosity and hatred of your favorite President, me. What changed? Why hasn’t he recused himself on this case? Obama must be very proud of him right now!”

His lawyers argued that even if there was sensitive material taken from the White House to Mar-a-Lago, it didn’t matter. Mr Trump claims that he had a standing order to declassify anything he took from the Oval Office, though no record of such an order exists.

Trump lawyer Evan Corcoran continued this argument in a letter to the DOJ included in the affidavit, claiming, “a president has absolute authority to declassify documents.”

What comes next in the Trump Mar-a-Lago investigation?

The affidavit notes that the investigation remains in its “early stages,” and indeed, plenty more drama seems on its way.

More than half of the document was redacted, suggesting numerous parts of the probe that remain ongoing and highly sensitive.

On Monday, Donald Trump sued the federal government, asking for a federal court to appoint a third party to review the additional tranche of documents taken from Mar-a-Lago, accusing the DOJ of "simply wanting the camel’s nose under the tent so they could rummage for either politically helpful documents or support efforts to thwart President Trump from running again".

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