Within the first two months that he was president, Donald Trump had already visited his estate in Florida, Mar-a-Lago, five times. His weekend jaunts, in addition to being pricey, were a scramble for the Secret Service, tasked both with protecting the president personally and the presidential entourage generally.
In March 2017, Politico published one of the first reports detailing the unusual challenge posed by Trump’s regular trips to the club.
“While Trump’s private club in South Florida has been transformed into a fortress of armed guards, military-grade radar, bomb sniffing dogs and metal-detection checkpoints,” Darren Samuelsohn wrote, “there are still notable vulnerabilities, namely the stream of guests who can enter the property without a background check.”
Because Trump operates a club on the property, members are allowed to explore the grounds with guests. It plays host to numerous events — political fundraisers, weddings, you name it — which provides a level of access that is otherwise unheard of for a presidential (or even post-presidential) residence.
In 2019, the perils of the scenario were manifested when a Chinese national was arrested after gaining access to the facility while in possession of several phones and other electronic devices. She made it to the reception area after bypassing security by saying she was going to the pool.
That situation carries a new weight this week.
On Monday, as you are no doubt aware, the FBI executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago and procured a number of boxes of material from the property. It was the latest stage in a protracted effort to secure material that Trump took with him when he left office, including, it seems, classified documents. Among those, The Washington Post reported Thursday evening, may have been ones pertaining to nuclear weapons.
In addition to learning more about the nature of what Trump allegedly possessed at Mar-a-Lago, reporting over the past several days has fleshed out our understanding of where the material was kept and how it was protected. In the immediate aftermath of the search, attorneys for Trump disclosed that material had been recovered from three locations: Trump’s office above the ballroom, a bedroom and a “storage area.”
That storage area has been described in some reports as a “basement,” but, according to NewsNation reporter Brian Entin, was actually “a storage room off an interior hallway near the pool.” Measuring about 10 feet by 6 feet, the room was lined with boxes. You can see the pool at the center of the complex on the map below. (There is also another pool to the east, adjacent to the ocean.)
This room, it seems, was the one that had been a focus of investigators’ attention in the weeks before the FBI moved in. A Justice Department official reportedly visited the property and was shown the room in June; after that visit the department recommended that a lock be added for additional security. That lock was added, an attorney for Trump said — and then broken when the FBI arrived Monday.
But remember that we’re not simply talking about a room near a pool at Trump’s house. We’re talking about a room near a pool that is used regularly for events.
A quick review of Instagram shows how often this area is a centerpiece of events at the facility that are open to the public. Here is one example, a model posing next to the pool during an event.
And here’s Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake posing for a photo near the east end of the pool earlier this year after attending a screening of the movie “2000 Mules.”
One of the more interesting photos is this one, promoting a luxury car event that was hosted at Mar-a-Lago earlier this year. In the background, you can see Mar-a-Lago buildings — including, beneath the palms, a covered hallway lined with doors.
It is not yet clear where the storage area searched by the FBI is located. But it’s easy to see how storing material in the general vicinity of the pool could have been problematic: It was a focal point of activity as part of Mar-a-Lago’s day-to-day business.
In addition to requesting an additional lock for the storage room itself, the government also subpoenaed surveillance footage that, the New York Times reported, “could have given officials a glimpse of who was coming in and out of the storage area.” This may have been an effort to determine if particular individuals had gone into the room — or it may simply have been to assess the level of risk posed by having the material near publicly accessible areas.
Questions about Trump’s handling of classified information preceded his presidency and accelerated quickly once he was inaugurated. There were — and are — many reasons to think that Trump was less careful about protecting classified information than his predecessors in the White House or than other elected officials. Then he left office and moved into an event space, allegedly bringing a number of secrets with him.
This week’s search, cast by Trump and his allies as the nefarious actions of a devious “deep state,” may have included a focus on something far less controversial: ensuring that some slightly tipsy guy who rolled up to Mar-a-Lago to check out Ferrari’s 2023 models didn’t accidentally stumble onto America’s nuclear vulnerabilities as he was hunting for the bathroom.