The government’s discovery in May that nearly 200 classified documents had been stored at former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home helped justify the FBI search of the estate, according to a 38-page search warrant affidavit unsealed in federal court on Friday.
The affidavit indicates that boxes containing documents were transported from the White House to Mar-a-Lago in January 2021, citing a news report about moving boxes at the resort on Jan. 18, 2021.
After negotiations between Trump attorneys and the federal officials, 15 boxes of records were provided to the National Archives this January and reviewed by FBI agents in May. The affidavit unsealed Friday revealed that those boxes included “184 unique documents bearing classification markings, including 67 documents marked as CONFIDENTIAL, 92 documents marked as SECRET and 25 documents marked as TOP SECRET.”
The affidavit indicates that agents also found documents marked with HCS (which refers to human spies), FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), ORCON (Originator Controlled), NOFORN (documents not allowed to fall in possession of foreign governments) and SI (Special Intelligence, or material gathered from the monitoring of foreign communications). “Several of the documents also contained what appears to be [Trump]’s handwritten notes,” the affidavit states.
“Of most significant concern was that highly classified records were unfoldered, intermixed with other records, and otherwise unproperly [sic] identified,” a National Archives and Records Administration official wrote in an email to the Department of Justice after reviewing what was in the boxes, quoted by an FBI special agent in the affidavit — which was unsealed in heavily redacted form.
In addition to classified documents, the affidavit states: “There is also probable cause to believe that evidence of obstruction will be found at the premises.”
The affidavit also includes an excerpt from a June 8 letter sent from DOJ to Trump’s lawyers, which states that DOJ had “previously indicated” to Trump’s legal team that Mar-a-Lago did not include a secure storage facility appropriate for classified information. This letter indicates that DOJ had made multiple attempts to warn the former president and his legal team that the documents were not being appropriately held.
The release of the affidavit provided the most revealing glimpse yet into what precipitated the Aug. 8 search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, in which federal agents took 11 sets of classified documents from the resort. However, the heavy redactions keep many key details hidden from public view — including why the government believed it would find evidence of obstruction at Mar-a-Lago.
Unsealed Friday, the affidavit is the document that the government was required to provide a federal magistrate judge showing probable cause that the search would find evidence these statutes were violated in order to obtain the search warrant.
The FBI conducted the search at Mar-a-Lago in relation to a federal investigation concerning the possible violation of three criminal statutes, according to the search warrant unsealed in federal court on Aug. 12. The search warrant authorized the seizure of all physical documents and records located at the property “illegally possessed in violation of” three different criminal laws: a portion of the Espionage Act, a law covering “concealment, removal or mutilation” of government records, and another concerning “destruction, alteration or falsification of records in federal investigations.” Trump has not been accused of a crime in the matter at this point, and the search warrant and affidavit do not amount to a formal accusation.
In brief public remarks on Aug. 11, after Trump himself had confirmed the search had occurred, Attorney General Merrick Garland said he had “personally approved the decision to seek a search warrant in this matter.”
“Upholding the rule of law means applying the law evenly, without fear or favor,” Garland said at the time. “Under my watch, that is precisely what the Justice Department is doing.”
The redactions in the affidavit released Friday cover information that would reveal identities of witnesses, law enforcement agents and uncharged parties; grand jury information; and the investigation’s “strategies, direction, scope, sources, and methods,” according to the order to unseal signed by Federal Magistrate Judge Bruce E. Reinhart on Thursday.
In a legal memo filed explaining its redactions that was also unsealed on Friday, DOJ said the redactions were necessary “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.”
Affidavits are rarely unsealed before the government files formal criminal charges. Reinhart’s order to unseal portions of the affidavit came in response to legal efforts by media organizations to unseal the document and despite opposition from the Department of Justice.
The DOJ had argued the affidavit should not have been unsealed even in redacted form, writing in an Aug. 15 filing that “the redactions necessary to mitigate harms to the integrity of the investigation would be so extensive as to render the remaining unsealed text devoid of meaningful content, and the release of such a redacted version would not serve any public interest.”
In its Aug. 15 filing, DOJ said the affidavit contains “highly sensitive information about witnesses, including witnesses interviewed by the government” and argued disclosure of information about witnesses “is not merely a hypothetical concern, given the widely reported threats made against law enforcement personnel in the wake of the Aug. 8 search.” In that same document, DOJ confirmed the Mar-a-Lago search was in connection with “an ongoing criminal investigation.”
However, Reinhart on Aug. 18 ordered DOJ to submit proposed redactions to the affidavit, stating “the Government has not met its burden of showing that the entire affidavit should remain sealed.”
While Trump’s legal team could have filed a pleading taking a position on whether the affidavit should be unsealed, Reinhart noted in an order this week that it had not done so. In a statement Friday regarding the unsealed document, Trump claimed he and federal officials had a “close working relationship on document turnover” that was not mentioned in the redacted affidavit.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.