The FBI searched former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home this month after reviewing 184 classified documents that were kept there since he left the White House, including several with Trump’s apparent handwriting on them, and interviewing a “significant number” of witnesses, court filings unsealed Friday say.
The affidavit suggests that if some of the classified documents voluntarily returned from Mar-a-Lago to the National Archives and Records Administration in January had fallen into the wrong hands, they could have revealed sensitive details about human intelligence sources or how spy agencies intercept the electronic communications of foreign targets. Over the spring and summer, the affidavit states, the FBI came to suspect that Trump and his team were hiding the fact that he still had more classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, leading agents to want to conduct a search of the property.
“There is also probable cause,” the affidavit says, “to believe that evidence of obstruction will be found.”
Federal Magistrate Judge Bruce E. Reinhart approved the search on Aug. 5. Three days later, FBI agents dressed in polos and khakis executed the search warrant at the Palm Beach estate, carting away an additional 20 boxes of items from a bedroom, office and a first-floor storage room, according to an inventory of what was retrieved from the property that was made public earlier this month.
Those boxes contained 11 more sets of classified documents, the inventory says, several of them also top secret.
The warrant authorizing the August search said agents were seeking all “physical documents and records constituting evidence, contraband, fruits of crime, or other items illegally possessed in violation of three potential crimes,” including a part of the Espionage Act outlawing gathering, transmitting or losing national defense information. The warrant also cites destruction of records and concealment or mutilation of government material.
More than half of the 32-page affidavit remains redacted. The portion that is visible is silent on some of the evidence that has propelled the investigation forward. It does not describe, for instance, what people close to Trump told the FBI about the documents, where the documents were kept, or who had access to them. It also doesn’t discuss security camera footage at the club that was subpoenaed and reviewed by government investigators and raised additional security concerns.
The filing includes as an attachment a May 25 letter from Trump lawyer Evan Corcoran to the Justice Department, defending the president’s conduct by arguing Trump had the ultimate classification authority within the government.
In a statement after the document was unsealed, Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said that “this is a grave travesty, and what is unredacted only further supports President Trump’s position, there was NO reason for a raid — it is all politics!”
Affidavits are detailed documents about an investigation that law enforcement officers submit to judges in hopes that they will approve their applications for search warrants. The sworn documents typically contain key information about witnesses, why agents believe evidence of a crime can be found on a certain property or device, and investigative steps taken before a search.
Executing a search warrant does not mean that prosecutors will ultimately file charges against anyone; in cases involving classified material, one goal of such searches is simply to recover sensitive information before secrets spill out. It is unusual to make the details of such an affidavit public, particularly in an ongoing investigation. But numerous media organizations and other parties, including The Washington Post, asked that the document be unsealed, citing the extreme public interest in the case.
Reinhart granted the request to unseal the affidavit but allowed the Justice Department to propose redactions of information that government officials said could jeopardize the probe or the safety of witnesses.
Even with the redactions, the document offers more detail about the escalating dispute over presidential records that led to this month’s search. On June 8, for instance, a Justice Department official wrote to Trump’s lawyer expressing concerns about the location and security of documents stored at Mar-a-Lago, the affidavit said.
Since classified documents were taken from the White House to the Florida club in 2021, the Justice Department official wrote, “they have not been handled in an appropriate manner or stored in an appropriate location. Accordingly, we ask that the room at Mar-a-Lago where the documents had been stored be secured and that all of the boxes that were moved from the White House to Mar-a-Lago (along with any other items in that room) be preserved in that room in their current condition until further notice.”
The affidavit says federal agents sought court approval to conduct the search after reviewing the contents of the 15 boxes Trump returned to the National Archives and Records Administration earlier this year and finding documents with classification markings in 14 of them.
Some of the documents were marked “HCS,” a category of highly classified government information; others related to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and material meant not to be shared with foreign nations. The “HCS” acronym stands for “HUMINT Control Systems” and refers to the government systems used to protect intelligence gathered from secret human sources, the affidavit says.
In total, those boxes contained 184 unique documents bearing classification markings, according to the affidavit. Some of the documents, the affidavit said, include what appear to be handwritten notes by Trump. Twenty-five documents were marked top secret, while 92 were marked with the lower classification of “secret”; 67 were marked “confidential,” the lowest level of classification.
In the letter to the Justice Department that is included with the affidavit, Corcoran insisted Trump had cooperated with the investigation. He also complained about leaks. Criminalizing Trump’s conduct over classified documents, Corcoran argued, would “implicate grave constitutional separation-of-power issues.” The lawyer requested that any application to a judge or grand jury in relation to the probe include the letter defending Trump.
Around the time the letter was sent, Trump’s team received a grand jury subpoena seeking any classified material the former president still possessed. At a June meeting with federal agents and Justice Department counterintelligence official Jay Bratt, Trump’s lawyers provided additional classified matter. But the FBI came to suspect Trump was still holding back other documents, according to people familiar with the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive ongoing case.
A separate, partially redacted document that was also unsealed Friday describes prosecutors’ rationale for withholding significant parts of the affidavit, and shows that a large number of individuals have provided information to the FBI in the case.
The memo says the redactions to the affidavit 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.” Making such information public now, the government argued, could “provide a roadmap for potential ways to obstruct the investigation.”
The Washington Post has previously reported that FBI agents have interviewed people in Trump’s orbit, including valets and former White House staffers, and became convinced in recent months that the former president continued to hold classified documents at his Florida home.
The search intensified Trump’s long-standing animus toward the Justice Department and the FBI. Emails, documents and interviews show that it followed months of conflict between the former president and law enforcement agencies about getting the documents — which are protected under the Presidential Records Act — into the custody of the Archives.
The affidavit also suggests Trump’s own comments about the issue contributed to the FBI’s suspicions, citing a Feb. 18 statement issued by the Save America political action committee on Trump’s behalf. It said the Archives “did not ‘find’ anything, they were given, upon request, Presidential Records in an ordinary and routine process to ensure the preservation of my legacy and in accordance with the Presidential Records Act.” The next two pages of the affidavit are redacted.
Trump’s legal team has separately asked a different federal judge to appoint a special master to review the material seized in the search for any documents that may be protected by executive privilege, calling the FBI search a “shockingly aggressive move.” Such special masters are sometimes appointed in investigations involving attorney-client privilege, but it’s not clear how executive privilege could apply to this case, or how, even if appointed, such a special master would have authority to review highly classified documents.
In executing the warrant, the affidavit said, the Justice Department already assigned a filter or “taint” team to review the documents and decide which ones should be shared with the criminal investigators, and which ones should not.
The affidavit also notes a May article published by Breitbart.com, in which Kash Patel, a former federal prosecutor and Trump administration official, said the reports of classified material found at Mar-a-Lago were misleading because Trump had declassified the materials at issue.
Patel claimed in an interview with the conservative publication that Trump had declassified sets of material before leaving the White House that he “thought the American public should have the right to read themselves.” While presidents do have broad powers to declassify material, there is a formal process for doing so, and Trump has not shown evidence that he went through that process for these documents.
Asked Friday whether he thought Trump could have declassified all the material the FBI is concerned about, President Biden appeared to scoff at the idea, and declined to give a substantive answer.
“I’m not going to comment because I don’t know the details. I don’t even want to know,” he told reporters. “I’ll let the Justice Department take that.”
The Jan. 6 insurrection
Congressional hearings: The House committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol held a series of high-profile hearings to share its findings with the U.S. public. In what was likely its final hearing, the committee issued a surprise subpoena seeking testimony from former president Donald Trump. Here’s a guide to the biggest hearing moments so far.
Will there be charges? The committee could make criminal referrals of former president Donald Trump over his role in the attack, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said in an interview.
The riot: On Jan. 6, 2021, a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election results. Five people died on that day or in the immediate aftermath, and 140 police officers were assaulted.
Inside the siege: During the rampage, rioters came perilously close to penetrating the inner sanctums of the building while lawmakers were still there, including former vice president Mike Pence. The Washington Post examined text messages, photos and videos to create a video timeline of what happened on Jan. 6.