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Mar-a-Lago classified papers held U.S. secrets about Iran and China

Iran’s missile program, U.S. intelligence work aimed at China were among the most sensitive material seized by the FBI, people familiar with the matter say

An image of documents seized during an FBI search of former president Donald Trump's Florida Mar-a-Lago estate, contained in a court filing by the Justice Department on Aug. 30. (AP)
7 min

Some of the classified documents recovered by the FBI from Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home and private club included highly sensitive intelligence regarding Iran and China, according to people familiar with the matter. If shared with others, the people said, such information could expose intelligence-gathering methods that the United States wants to keep hidden from the world.

At least one of the documents seized by the FBI describes Iran’s missile program, according to these people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe an ongoing investigation. Other documents described highly sensitive intelligence work aimed at China, they said.

Unauthorized disclosures of specific information in the documents would pose multiple risks, experts say. People aiding U.S. intelligence efforts could be endangered, and collection methods could be compromised. In addition, other countries or U.S. adversaries could retaliate against the United States for actions it has taken in secret.

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The warrant authorizing the search of former president Donald Trump’s home said agents were seeking documents possessed in violation of the Espionage Act. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

The classified documents about Iran and China are considered among the most sensitive the FBI has recovered to date in its investigation of Trump and his aides for possible mishandling of classified information, obstruction and destruction of government records, the people said. The criminal probe is unfolding even as the Justice Department and a district attorney in Georgia investigate alleged efforts by Trump and others to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, and as a House select committee has subpoenaed the former president seeking documents and testimony related to those allegations.

Trump has denied wrongdoing in having the documents at Mar-a-Lago, claiming in a recent television interview that he declassified any documents in his possession, and that a president can declassify information “even by thinking about it.” National security lawyers have derided those claims.

A spokesman for the former president did not respond to requests for comment Friday morning. But after this article published online, Trump posted on social media, decrying what he called leaks “on the Document Hoax” and suggesting that the FBI and the National Archives and Records Administration were trying to frame him.

“Who could ever trust corrupt, weaponized agencies, and that includes NARA,” Trump wrote. “ … Also who knows what NARA and the FBI plant into documents, or subtract from documents — we will never know, will we?”

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Some of the most sensitive materials were recovered in the FBI’s court-approved search of Trump’s home on Aug. 8, in which agents seized about 13,000 documents, 103 of them classified and 18 of them top secret, according to court papers.

Those papers were the third batch of classified documents recovered in the course of the investigation. Boxes voluntarily sent from Mar-a-Lago to the National Archives and Records Administration earlier this year were found to contain 184 classified documents, 25 of which were marked top secret, according to court records. In June, Trump’s representatives responded to a subpoena by giving investigators 38 additional classified documents.

The Washington Post has previously reported that one of the documents seized in the FBI search described a foreign country’s military defenses, including its nuclear capabilities. The people discussing the case would not say if that intelligence related to Iran, China or some other nation. Iran’s missile program and nuclear capabilities are closely watched by the Western world; U.S. intelligence agencies believe Tehran is close to having enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon, but has not demonstrated the mastery of some technologies necessary to deploy such weapons, such as the ability to integrate a nuclear warhead with a long-range delivery system.

The people familiar with the matter said that many of the more sensitive documents Trump or his aides apparently took to Mar-a-Lago after he left the White House are top-level analysis papers that do not contain sources’ names. But even without individual identifiers, such documents can provide valuable clues to foreign adversaries about how the United States may be gathering intelligence, and from whom, the people said.

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Some of the seized documents detail top-secret U.S. operations so closely guarded that many senior national security officials are not informed about them, The Post reported in September. Only the president, some members of his Cabinet or a near-Cabinet-level official could authorize government officials to know details of these special-access programs, people have said. Investigators conducting the Mar-a-Lago probe did not initially have the authority to review that material.

The new information about the documents obtained by The Post highlight what current and former intelligence officials say was the inherent risk posed by removing highly classified material from strictly guarded government buildings and keeping them in a private club filled with staffers, guests and visitors.

David Laufman, a former senior Justice Department official who handled cases involving mishandling of classified information, said the “exceptional sensitivity” of the material found at Mar-a-Lago will count as an aggravating factor as prosecutors weigh whether to file charges in the case.

“The exceptional sensitivity of these documents, and the reckless exposure of invaluable sources and methods of U.S. intelligence capabilities concerning these foreign adversaries, will certainly influence the Justice Department’s determination of whether to charge Mr. Trump or others with willful retention of national defense information under the Espionage Act,” Laufman said.

The FBI referred questions about the documents to the Justice Department, which declined to comment for this article.

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Trump and his most ardent supporters have dismissed the criminal probe as an effort to undermine the former president — who remains the most influential figure in the Republican Party and talks openly about running for the White House again in 2024.

Officials at the National Archives began seeking the return of government records from the Trump administration last year, after officials came to believe that some records — such as letters from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — were unaccounted for, and perhaps in Trump’s possession.

After months of back and forth, Trump agreed in January to turn over 15 boxes of material. When archivists examined the boxes, they found 184 documents marked classified, including 25 marked top secret, which were scattered throughout the boxes in no particular order, according to court filings.

Archives officials notified the Justice Department, and authorities soon came to believe that Trump had not turned over all the classified material in his possession. Justice officials secured a grand jury subpoena in May, seeking any documents still at Mar-a-Lago that bore classified markings. In response, Trump’s advisers met with government agents and prosecutors at Mar-a-Lago in early June, handing over a sealed envelope containing another 38 classified documents, including 17 marked top secret, according to court papers.

Former White House aide told FBI Trump instructed him to move documents at Mar-a-Lago

According to government filings, Trump’s representatives claimed at the meeting that a diligent search had been conducted for all classified documents at the club.

That meeting, which included a visit to the storage room where Trump’s advisers said the relevant boxes of documents were kept, did not satisfy investigators, who were not allowed to inspect the boxes they saw in the storage room, according to government court filings.

Five days later, senior Justice Department official Jay Bratt wrote to Trump’s lawyers to remind them that Mar-a-Lago “does not include a secure location authorized for the storage of classified information.” Bratt wrote that based on the visit, it appeared classified documents “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.”

Agents continued to gather evidence that Trump was apparently not complying with either government requests or subpoena demands. According to people familiar with the investigation, security camera footage showed boxes being carried from the storage area after the May subpoena was issued — and a key witness told the FBI that he moved the boxes at Trump’s instruction.

With that evidence in hand, the Justice Department decided to seek a judge’s approval to search the former president’s home.