Perhaps the most intriguing component of the court filing submitted Tuesday night by the Justice Department did not involve legal argumentation or an articulation of the department’s possible case against former president Donald Trump. Instead, it was a photograph showing documents arrayed on the floor of an unidentified room.
The government’s months-long effort to recover documents that were kept at Trump’s Florida residence after he left the White House doesn’t depend on that material being classified. But the question of whether Trump had classified material with him at his Mar-a-Lago resort has captured the public’s attention. The photo published by the government appears to answer that question quite affirmatively.
There is detail in the photograph that bears closer examination, detail not immediately apparent to the casual observer. Below, we’ve picked out some of those details, exploring what they show — and what further questions they raise.
Where was this?
An immediate question is where, exactly, the photo was taken.
In its filing, the Justice Department orients the photo — the filing’s Attachment F — as follows:
“Certain of the documents had colored cover sheets indicating their classification status. See, e.g., Attachment F (redacted FBI photograph of certain documents and classified cover sheets recovered from a container in the ‘45 office’).”
The material shown, then, is from Trump’s personal office at Mar-a-Lago, but the photograph itself doesn’t appear to have been taken there.
Consider the detail in the lower left of the photo. We see three distinguishing elements: a busy carpet pattern, some sort of dark-blue, fringed fabric — perhaps a curtain — and white cupboards with a relief pattern. (Update: This appears to be a stylized filing cabinet.)
There are various photo galleries of Mar-a-Lago online (see the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s, for example), but there’s no obvious match for the elements shown in the photo. A picture of Trump’s office, tweeted by his former aide Stephen Miller last year, shows a very different aesthetic from the one in Attachment F.
The carpet certainly has the stain-hiding aesthetic common to hotels or event spaces such as Mar-a-Lago, but it’s not immediately clear where the picture was actually taken.
Update: The Washington Post’s Aaron Schaffer notes that the carpet appears to match the one seen in photos shared by people who’d met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, including Florida state Rep. Anthony Sabatini (R) and Kyle Rittenhouse. Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara also confirmed the carpet as being from Mar-a-Lago in an interview, as a reader pointed out.
There is another good indicator that it was at Mar-a-Lago: In a post on Truth Social on Wednesday morning, Trump suggested that it was.
There is, of course, no indication that the FBI was trying to suggest that Trump had created a mess. Instead, investigators were doing what investigators do: documenting what they’d found.
How the government documented the scene
The photograph also includes at least two indicators of that documentation.
The first is the use of a photo scale, an instrument that can be laid down to allow observers to evaluate the size of objects in a photo. You can see it below the document at the lower center of the full photo.
Then there’s the small marker to the right of that document, the one that says “2A.”
This appears to be a reference to how investigators documented material recovered from Mar-a-Lago. The property receipt provided to Trump’s lawyers on the day of the search used number and letter codes to identify items taken. Item “2A” is listed as “Various classified/TS/SCI documents.” (More on those abbreviations in a moment.)
That receipt suggests that the displayed documents were found in the container listed as item 2: “Leatherbound box of documents.” That box doesn’t appear to be included in the photo.
What was found
Now we get to the heart of the matter: what investigators found.
Let’s start with that document at the bottom center of the photo. It has a cover sheet indicating that it is classified as “secret.” The government has default cover sheets for various classification levels, ranging from a blue “confidential” classification to an orange “top secret.”
You’ll notice that the documents with the “TOP SECRET/SCI” markings in the photo have a yellow border and not an orange one. Similarly, the document at the bottom center has an orangeish-red-bordered cover sheet (not a purely red one) and is marked “SECRET/SCI.” That “SCI” is important — as are other markings on the cover sheet that provide more information about the document’s classification.
“SCI,” for example, indicates that the material is considered “sensitive compartmented information” — information that is further restricted to a subgroup of those with the indicated top-level clearance (here, “secret”).
Then there’s the “UP TO HCS-P/SI/TK” flag. “Up to” suggests that the document includes material in each of the subsequent categories.
- “HCS-P” indicates material obtained from human sources, generally meaning informants or spies. (There’s more about the “-P” qualifier here.)
- “SI” refers to communications intelligence, generally material gathered from surveillance of online or telephone sources.
- “TK” is short for “talent keyhole,” generally referring to satellite-based surveillance.
Other documents shown in the photo have visible dates, which offer their own information.
Documents 1 and 2, for example, appear to be dated Aug. 26, 2018. (The resolution of the photograph provided by the Justice Department does not allow for much additional clarity.) It’s not clear what might have occurred on that day that Trump would have wanted to preserve.
Those documents are both identified as classified, in this case written in text at the top of the sheet of paper. Document 1 is “confidential.” Document 2 is more complicated: “SECRET/ORCON-USGOV-NOFORN.” Those latter indicators mean that the originator of the material controls distribution (ORCON) and that it is excluded from being shared with foreign allies (NOFORN).
Document 3 is more interesting. First, its classification marking was obscured by the government before publishing the photograph. Then there’s the date, which appears to be Wednesday, May 9, 2018. That day, Bloomberg News notes, was one day after Trump announced that the United States would be pulling out of the Iran nuclear agreement.
Most of the other documents are obscured or redacted, limiting how much we can learn. But there is that box at right, the one in which we can see a number of picture frames, one of which shows a Time magazine cover.
That cover is from the magazine’s March 4, 2019, issue, showing the crowded Democratic field that hoped to challenge Trump in the 2020 election. Notice the frame: Beveled and gold in color, it matches the framed pictures shown in Stephen Miller’s photo of Trump’s office.
Keeping Time magazine covers is very typical for Trump, who displayed magazine covers at his properties. Unlike other Time covers that he displayed, this one was real.