Takeaways from the unsealed Mar-a-Lago search affidavit
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department on Friday unsealed the FBI affidavit justifying the unprecedented search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. While the document released is highly redacted, with many of its pages crossed out by black blocks, it includes new details about the sheer volume of sensitive and highly classified information that was stored at the former president’s Florida beachfront home, underscoring the government’s concerns about its safety.
Here are top takeaways of what the document revealed:
TRUMP HAD ‘A LOT’ OF CLASSIFIED MATERIAL STORED AT HIS CLUB
While the affidavit doesn’t provide new details about the 11 sets of classified records that were recovered during the FBI’s Aug. 8 search of Trump’s winter home, it does help to explain why the Justice Department believed that retrieving the outstanding documents was necessary.
Federal investigators knew months before the search that Trump had been storing top secret government records at Mar-a-Lago, a private club accessible not only to Trump, his staff and his family, but paying members and their guests, along with a revolving door of attendees at various functions, including weddings, political fundraisers and charity galas.
The affidavit notes that Mar-a-Lago storage areas, Trump’s office, his residential suite and other areas at the club where documents were suspected to still be kept were not authorized locations for the storage of classified information. Indeed, it notes that no space at Mar-a-Lago had been authorized for the storage of classified information at least since the end of Trump’s term in office.
Yet the affidavit reveals that, of the batch of 15 boxes that the National Archives and Records Administration retrieved from Trump’s home in January, 14 contained documents with classification markings. Inside, they found 184 documents bearing classification markings, including 67 marked confidential, 92 secret and 25 top secret.
The Archives referred the matter to the Justice Department on Feb. 9 after a preliminary review of the boxes found what they described as “a lot of classified records.”
THE RECORDS INCLUDED TOP INTELLIGENCE SECRETS
Agents who inspected the boxes found special markings suggesting they included information from highly sensitive human sources or the collection of electronic “signals” authorized by a court under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The affidavit lists several markings, including ORCON, or “Originator Controlled.” That means officials at the intelligence agency responsible for the report did not want it distributed to other agencies without their permission.
There may also be other types of records with classified names or codewords still redacted.
“When things are at that level of classification, it’s because there’s a real danger to the people who are collecting the information or the capability,” said Douglas London, a former senior CIA officer who wrote a book about the agency, “The Recruiter.”
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has not responded to calls from Congress for a damage assessment. Sen. Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, issued a statement in which he once again called for a briefing.
“It appears, based on the affidavit unsealed this morning, that among the improperly handled documents at Mar-a-Lago were some of our most sensitive intelligence,” Warner said.
CLASSIFIED RECORDS WERE MIXED WITH OTHER PAPERS
Some of those classified records were mixed with other documents, the affidavit says, citing a letter from the Archives.
According to Archives’ White House liaison division director, the boxes contained “newspapers, magazines, printed news articles, photos, miscellaneous print-outs, notes, presidential correspondence, personal and post-presidential records, and ‘a lot of classified records.’” Several contained what appeared to be Trump’s handwritten notes.
Of most significant concern: “highly classified records were unfoldered, intermixed with other records, and otherwise unproperly (sic) identified.”
A president might be given raw intelligence reporting to supplement his briefings or to cover a breaking or critically important matter, said David Priess, a former CIA officer and White House briefer who wrote “The President’s Book of Secrets,” a history of the President’s Daily Brief.
But it would be “unusual, if not unprecedented, for a president to keep it and to intermingle it with other papers,” he said.
“Even though I was prepared for this because I knew the judge would not approve a search based on something minor, the breadth and depth of the careless handling of classified information is truly shocking,” Priess said.
TRUMP HAD REPEATED OPPORTUNITIES TO RETURN THE DOCUMENTS
The affidavit makes clear yet again that Trump had numerous opportunities to return the documents to the government, but simply chose not to.
A lengthy process to retrieve the documents had been underway essentially since Trump left the White House. The document states that on or about May 6, 2021, the Archives made a request for the missing records “and continued to make requests until approximately late December 2021,” when it was informed 12 boxes were found and ready for retrieval from the club.
The affidavit makes clear that the Department of Justice’s criminal investigation concerns not just the improper removal and storage of classified information in unauthorized spaces and the potentially unlawful concealment or removal of government records, but says investigators had “probable cause to believe that evidence of obstruction” would be found in their search.
Trump’s lawyer, in a letter that was included in the release, had argued to DOJ that presidents have “absolute” authority to declassify documents, claiming that his “constitutionally-based authority regarding the classification and declassification of documents is unfettered.” Trump has not provided evidence the documents at Mar-a-Lago were declassified before he left Washington.
TRUMP SAYS HE DID ‘NOTHING WRONG’
Trump has long insisted, despite clear evidence to the contrary, that he fully cooperated with government officials and had every right to have the documents on site. On his social media site, he responded to the unsealing by continuing to vilify law enforcement.
He called it a “total public relations subterfuge by the FBI & DOJ” and said “WE GAVE THEM MUCH.” In another post, he offered just two words: “WITCH HUNT!!!”
In an interview on Lou Dobbs’ “The Great America Show” on Thursday, he said he’d done nothing wrong.
“This is a political attack on our country and it’s a disgrace,” he added. “It’s a disgrace.”
Colvin reported from New York. Associated Press writers Mike Balsamo, Lisa Mascaro and Eric Tucker contributed to this report.