A federal judge on Friday unsealed a search warrant for former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property, showing the FBI took 11 sets of classified documents from the resort and suggesting three criminal laws may have been violated, including the Espionage Act.
The World War I-era law covers several crimes related to unlawful possession and sharing of national defense information. Prosecutors cited portions of the law concerning improper possession and handling of national secrets, not improper sharing, in the Aug. 5 warrant.
It has often been used in cases targeting whistleblowers, but the law also applies to people who unlawfully remove or hide public records. It is not clear exactly was in the documents that the FBI seized from Trump.
The release of the warrant represents the latest twist in the Department of Justice’s high-stakes investigation into classified documents that Trump kept when he left office.
Trump has framed the search as an affront cooked up by the DOJ, repeatedly noting that he had authority to declassify documents as president and accusing the government of putting him “under siege” after FBI agents searched Mar-a-Lago on Monday.
The Justice Department went to great lengths to keep Monday’s raid quiet. But Trump opted to announce the raid in a public statement, prompting furor from Republicans targeted at the FBI and the DOJ. Thursday, Attorney General Merrick Garland made a rare statement about the search, asserting that DOJ had gone through proper channels to obtain the search warrant and that he had personally approved the decision to seek it. The same day, the department requested in district court that the judge who had issued the warrant unseal it.
“Upholding the law means applying the law evenly, without fear or favor,” Garland said on Thursday.
Grid combed through the warrant to glean what it tells us about the DOJ’s investigation and what agents were looking for in Trump’s home.
The FBI was given clearance to search the parts of Mar-a-Lago where Trump stays and works
The warrant gave the FBI clearance to search “all storage rooms” and areas of Mar-a-Lago where Trump or his staff may store documents, including “all structures or buildings on the estate.” One exception: The warrant did not include private guest areas that are not available to the former president.
The warrant was issued in relation to violation of federal laws including the Espionage Act
Federal search warrants list the specific criminal statutes that investigators have probable cause to believe the search will reveal evidence of having been violated. The search warrant unsealed on Friday authorized the seizure of all physical documents and records at Mar-a-Lago “illegally possessed in violation of 18 U.S.C. § § 793, 2071, and 1519.”
Trump has not been accused of a crime in the matter at this point, and the listing of these statutes does not amount to a formal accusation. However, the Department of Justice had to provide a federal magistrate judge with an affidavit showing probable cause that it would find evidence these statutes were violated in order to obtain the search warrant. Here is more detail on those statutes:
- Gathering, transmitting or losing defense information, 18 U.S.C. § 793, is a portion of the Espionage Act of 1917 and prohibits a broad range of actions regarding sensitive government records. It carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.
- Concealment, removal or mutilation generally, 18 U.S.C. § 2071, prohibits concealing, removing, mutilating, obliterating or destroying government records. It carries a maximum sentence of three years.
- Destruction, alteration or falsification of records in federal investigations and bankruptcy, 18 U.S.C. § 1519, which prohibits altering or destroying records “with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter.” It carries a maximum sentence of 20 years.
The Espionage Act has seen few convictions since it was passed amid World War I-era concerns about the leak of sensitive information.
When whistleblower Edward Snowden was charged on two counts of violating the Espionage Act in 2013, he became only the seventh individual formally charged under the act, the Washington Post reported at the time. More recently, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was charged in 2019 with violating the Espionage Act in connection with his alleged activities to collect information regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“All physical documents and records constituting evidence, contraband, fruits of crime, or other items illegally possessed”
The warrant gives the FBI leeway to take a range of records from Mar-a-Lago having to do with classified information or the potential destruction of government records.
The documents the FBI was allowed to seize included anything marked as classified “along with any containers/boxes (including any other contents) in which such documents are located.” The FBI was also permitted to take “any other containers/boxes that are collectively stored or found together with the aforementioned documents and containers/boxes.”
The warrant explicitly mentions that the FBI should seize “documents with classification markings” and documents containing “any evidence of the knowing alteration, destruction, or concealment” of government records.
National defense information
The warrant includes the term “national defense information,” which is a category of material that doesn’t necessarily have to be classified. The Espionage Act covers this broad category of information. A jury can decide whether something is related to national defense or not, but the courts are usually deferential to the executive agency’s determination. The government has to make “some showing that the release of specific national defense information has the potential to harm U.S. interests, lest the Espionage Act become a means to punish whistleblowers who reveal information that poses more of a danger of embarrassing public officials than of endangering national security,” according to the Congressional Research Service.
In the receipt for property in the search warrant for Mar-a-Lago, the term “national defense information” does not appear, but some of the documents seized could fall under this description.
Highly classified “TS” and “SCI” documents were among the documents seized by the FBI
The documents taken from Mar-a-Lago include several caches of documents that are considered classified — some of them among the most classified documents that exist, according to a receipt filed with the warrant. One cache contained documents labeled as “classified/TS/SCI documents,” referring to “top secret,” or “sensitive compartmented information,” which is a highly classified type of document relating to intelligence sources.
Overall, the FBI seized five caches of documents labeled as top secret, according to the warrant.
Boxes of “secret” and “confidential” documents were also seized
The FBI seized six caches of documents labeled as either “secret” or “confidential,” both categories of classified documents. “Secret” documents specifically are classified national security documents that demand a “substantial degree of protection” under law.
Most of the more than three dozen caches of documents seized by the FBI carry little description in the property receipt. A handful of documents are labeled more specifically: “Leatherbound box of documents,” “Handwritten note” and “Info re: president of France” are among the other descriptors the DOJ used.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.