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Opinion 3 big things we learned from the Mar-a-Lago affidavit

Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Pam Beach, Fla. (Steve Helber/AP)
5 min

In the Mar-a-Lago saga, Donald Trump has offered several big defenses. First, the former president has reportedly insisted to aides that he primarily took from the White House documents that were “mine.” Second, he has suggested he always intended to do the right thing and turn over government documents in his possession. Third, he has said in many ways that the FBI’s Aug. 8 search of his Florida estate amounted to illegitimate jackbooted tyranny.

Now that the Justice Department has released a redacted version of the affidavit the FBI filed before getting a warrant to search Mar-a-Lago, those arguments look even shakier.

The affidavit was released on Friday after federal Magistrate Judge Bruce E. Reinhart ordered the Justice Department to produce a redacted version, and then approved those redactions as reasonable to protect the investigation and the identities of witnesses. Here are three things the affidavit tells us:

On August 26, 2022, a redacted version of the affidavit supporting the request to search former president Trump’s Florida residence was released. (Video: Michael Cadenhead/The Washington Post)

Trump improperly hoarded a large amount of documents, including ones potentially identifying human intelligence sources

The affidavit describes in detail what the FBI found when it reviewed 15 boxes of documents that Trump provided to the National Archives in January, after archives officials had sounded the alarm about missing materials. (The Archives subsequently referred the matter to the Justice Department.)

Those included 184 documents that were marked as classified, including some as highly classified. The affidavit suggests these contained classified National Defense Information, or potentially very sensitive top-secret information relevant to national security. Some appeared to bear Trump’s “handwritten notes.”

The affidavit also says markings on the documents included “HCS,” or human intelligence sources. Experts tell me it’s not clear whether this refers to information about people who are intelligence sources or information provided by such sources. Either way, they said, failure to secure such documents could compromise the identities of people providing the United States with important information from sensitive positions.

This badly undermines the notion that Trump merely kept a bunch of documents for sentimental reasons, such as his letter from the North Korean leader, because they were “mine.”

Columbia Law School professor Daniel Richman says the government typically treats documents about confidential national security sources as “among its most valuable and protected secrets.”

“Because they involve references to confidential sources, particularly in the national security area, they are not the type of things anyone can maintain as souvenirs of service,” Richman told me.

Remember, it’s been reported that Trump’s own aides tried to get this information handed over to the National Archives but that Trump resisted. We now have a clearer picture of what he did not want to give back.

This could get much bigger

At one point, the affidavit requests that a judge keep the document sealed because it could compromise the ongoing investigation and because “the FBI has not yet identified all potential criminal confederates.”

Obviously, the document has been unsealed, with redactions. But that passage strongly suggests that the investigation could broaden out to more criminal suspects.

National security lawyer Bradley Moss says this raises questions about who the FBI’s true target is right now. “Is it just Donald Trump?” Moss asked rhetorically. “Or some of his staff?”

We don’t know whether Trump or anyone around him will be charged with any crimes. But we do know that in approving this warrant, a federal judge concluded that evidence presented amounted to “probable cause” to conclude three statutes may have been violated.

Those statutes are the Espionage Act, a law against destroying or concealing documents with intent to obstruct an investigation or administration of other U.S. government matters, and a third involving mistreatment of government documents.

We now know the pool of potential suspects for these crimes could grow. As Moss told me: “The full scope of what this could result in is not yet defined.”

Trump’s conspiracy-theorizing is baloney

Trump is already seizing on the redactions to imply that more illegitimate law enforcement targeting of him is being covered up. He raged on Truth Social: “Affidavit heavily redacted!!!”

But what was disclosed in the affidavit has already confirmed that Trump had enormous piles of highly sensitive documents in his possession long after the National Archives wanted them back.

The affidavit also reveals that as late as June 8, the Justice Department sent a letter to Trump’s counsel suggesting that classified documents were still at Mar-a-Lago and still not being secured. The fact that the subsequent search found a large number of highly sensitive documents confirms that the department was right to suspect that.

“Over and over, the concerns about Trump’s conduct have been substantiated,” Moss told me.

And remember, a judge read what these redactions are concealing and agreed that they were essential to preserve the integrity of the investigation.

“We don’t know what’s under the redactions,” Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told me. “But the judge thought they were appropriate.”