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Takeaways from the redacted affidavit used for the Mar-a-Lago search

Pages from the affidavit by the FBI in support of obtaining a search warrant for former president Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate. (Jon Elswick/AP)

The largest piece of the puzzle about why FBI agents searched former president Donald Trump’s residence is out: the affidavit submitted to warrant the search. In its full form, this usually sealed document spells out exactly what FBI agents thought was hidden at Mar-a-Lago and what crimes may have been committed. But the version the Justice Department released to the public Friday is heavily redacted.

Here’s what we were able to glean about the investigation — and still have to learn.

1. One hundred eighty-four classified documents, including some top secret, were once at Mar-a-Lago

This affidavit, by definition, was written before FBI agents searched Trump’s clubhouse and took away more boxes of suspected classified information. They are likely sifting through that now. But when National Archives retrieved 15 boxes of official material in January from Mar-a-Lago, they found “a lot of classified records,” according to the affidavit, and flagged the FBI.

A subsequent FBI tally of classified information in those boxes found, according to the affidavit: “184 unique documents bearing classification markings, including 67 documents marked as CONFIDENTIAL, 92 documents marked as SECRET, and 25 documents marked as TOP SECRET.”

That’s an astonishing amount of classified material, legal experts said.

In addition, the FBI believed that the material contained what it calls “national defense information,” or some of the most guarded secrets. (The Washington Post has reported the government feared nuclear secrets were at Mar-a-Lago.)

In addition, the FBI was concerned that the classified information was treated carelessly. The National Archives wrote to the bureau that the boxes it retrieved from Mar-a-Lago contained: “newspapers, magazines, printed news articles, photos, miscellaneous printouts, notes, presidential correspondence, personal and postpresidential records, and ‘a lot of classified records.’ Of most significant concern was that highly classified records were unfoldered, intermixed with other records, and otherwise unproperly identified.”

People who have worked at the White House and handled classified documents stress that each document is treated with extreme care; some of the most secret material are returned to a secure room or even a safe after the president or other authorized top officials review it.

“The affidavit confirms that the documents were stored in various locations around Mar-a-Lago and that none of these locations was an approved storage facility for classified material,” said Barbara McQuade, a former federal prosecutor.

2. The Justice Department is suspicious of obstruction by Trump or his allies

“There is also probable cause to believe that evidence of obstruction will be found at the PREMISES,” reads the affidavit. We don’t learn much more than that from this document.

But the affidavit states that the National Archives spent six months in the latter half of 2021 trying to get more documents. And then the FBI got involved. The Post’s Josh Dawsey, Carol D. Leonnig, Jacqueline Alemany and Rosalind S. Helderman reported that all this year, Trump resisted handing much of anything over, to the point where his allies feared he was “essentially daring” the FBI to come after them.

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)

Trump was also warned before he even left the White House that taking any official documents with him, let alone national secrets, was illegal under the Presidential Records Act. And even Trump’s attorneys agreed that the former president needed to give the documents back, report Dawsey and Alemany, citing the National Archives’ conversations with Trump’s lawyers.

The Justice Department already released the search warrant that Judge Bruce E. Reinhart signed off on. It was a short document that revealed that the FBI found top-secret information there while looking for evidence of the violation of three potential crimes, including part of the Espionage Act. The affidavit doesn’t shed much more light on that.

3. It’s possible Trump allies were talking to the FBI about all this

Included in the paperwork with the affidavit was a formal notice that the redacted memorandum was being released. In it, the Justice Department writes that the redactions are necessary to protect “a broad range of civilian witnesses.”

“This language suggests that people inside Trump’s former administration, or at Mar-a-Lago, are providing information to the FBI,” McQuade said.

The redacted affidavit itself suggests that the investigation includes detailed monitoring of Mar-a-Lago to find out how many boxes of official material were still there and where they were being stored.

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)

4. What’s missing

We’re not seeing the full affidavit; far from it.

The Justice Department was allowed to pretty liberally ink-out many details of its investigation, because lawyers said this was still in its early stages.

We don’t know exactly what they cut.

But Jack Sharman, a corporate litigator who has been involved in numerous government investigations, said affidavits that get publicly released are usually protective of confidential informants as well as personal identifying information of the informants, or of law enforcement agents, given the threats to law enforcement from some Trump supporters. (The name of the FBI agent primarily responsible for writing the affidavit is withheld.) Also, statements made by witnesses or informants can be redacted. And just about anything having to do with a related investigation or potential subjects or targets is usually cut from these kinds of releases, Sharman said.

5. We still don’t know why Trump wanted these documents

In addition to whether the Justice Department will charge Trump or someone in his orbit with a crime, why all these documents were at Mar-a-Lago in the first place is one of the biggest unanswered questions of this whole thing.

Trump and his lawyers were repeatedly asked to return them. Under requests from the National Archives, a subpoena and visits to Mar-a-Lago from Justice Department officials, they did return some boxes. But much more, it seems, remained in Trump’s possession.

6. The full affidavit is a road map to potential prosecution

An affidavit is essentially a report of all the evidence and witnesses and reasoning for why agents need a search warrant to go through someone’s private stuff. The private home of a former president has a particularly high bar, so this affidavit was likely extremely thorough and detailed.

Attorney General Merrick Garland signed off on it, and FBI agents presented this sworn document to a magistrate judge. The judge agreed that agents convincingly laid out there was probable cause that a crime was committed at Mar-a-Lago by Trump keeping classified documents there, or at least that there was strong potential of evidence of a crime. The search warrant and affidavit mention potential crimes that don’t require information to be classified, though. So simply just taking the material out of the White House and refusing to give it back could be enough for prosecution.

These affidavits are usually kept sealed because they are a road map for any potential prosecution after the search. But citing the overwhelming public interest, Reinhart ordered the Justice Department to release as much as it could without revealing secrets of its ongoing investigation.

“It’s highly unusual that this is even happening, period,” Sharman said.

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