Read the partially redacted Mar-a-Lago search affidavit, annotated

(Brandon Bell/Getty Images/Washington Post illustration)

Why did FBI agents search former president Donald Trump’s residence? We now have the evidence laying out their reasoning — kind of. It’s called an affidavit. In its full form, this document spells out exactly what FBI agents think was hidden at Mar-a-Lago and what crimes may have been committed. They presented this to a judge to make their case to search Mar-a-Lago, and these documents are usually kept under lock and key.

But given the extraordinary circumstances surrounding a former president, a judge ordered the government to release as much of the affidavit as it can to the public. The version the Justice Department unsealed Friday is heavily redacted, which prosecutors said was to protect its ongoing investigation.

Below are notable highlights from the affidavit, with annotations providing analysis and background.

Read the redacted affidavit in support of the Mar-a-Lago search warrant
This document spells out exactly what FBI agents think was hidden at Donald Trump’s residence and what crimes may have been committed.
Click or tap the highlighted passages for additional analysis.
Page 1
The government is conducting a criminal investigation1 concerning the improper removal and storage of classified information in unauthorized spaces, as well as the unlawful concealment or removal of government records.

1 We already knew the FBI went to Mar-a-Lago looking for evidence of the violation of three potential crimes, including part of the Espionage Act. That’s based on the search warrant that the Justice Department released earlier this month, under public pressure, after the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago. This is the very first line in the 38-page affidavit that the FBI put together to apply for that search warrant. And it underscores that the government seemed fairly worried that Trump and/or his allies were illegally storing classified material — and potentially keeping it from the government.

The investigation began as a result of a referral the United States National Archives and Records Administration2 (NARA) sent to the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) on February 9, 2022, hereinafter, NARA Referral.

2 A reminder of how this all got started: When Trump left office, he was supposed to hand over all official White House records to the federal government, specifically the National Archives. That’s according to the Presidential Records Act, a Reagan-era law designed to preserve presidential records for history. But even before he left, the National Archives became concerned that Trump wasn’t going to comply, report The Post’s Josh Dawsey and Jacqueline Alemany. He had a penchant for ripping up documents, which his aides had to tape back together, and taking official papers to his residence and not returning them, as well as being cavalier with classified information. After he left office, the National Archives became concerned that major documents from his presidency were missing, like a letter from North Korea’s leader, and it spent six months trying to get documents back. When the Archives recovered them nearly a year later, it found nearly 200 documents of classified information and alerted the FBI, which started a criminal investigation to determine how government secrets left the government’s hands and whether they were being misused.

Page 2
The FBI’s investigation has established that documents bearing classification markings,3 which appear to contain National Defense Information (NDI), were among the materials contained in the FIFTEEN BOXES and were stored at the PREMISES in an unauthorized location.

3 The FBI’s worst fears about what was at Mar-a-Lago seemed to be quickly confirmed. Their initial investigation turned up documents with national defense information — likely some of the government’s most closely guarded secrets — at Mar-a-Lago, and evidence that they say weren’t properly stored. (The Post has reported that Trump’s lawyers to put a lock on a storage facility where many of the boxes were after Justice Department officials visited the property as part of their investigation.)

Further, there is probable cause to believe that additional documents that contain classified NDI or that are Presidential records subject to record retention requirements currently remain at the PREMISES. There is also probable cause to believe that evidence of obstruction will be found at the PREMISES.4

4 This is one of the major takeaways from the redacted affidavit. We don’t learn much more than this, but it appears the FBI believed Trump or his allies were trying to hide the fact that classified information remained at Mar-a-Lago. The Post’s Josh Dawsey, Carol Leonnig, Jacqueline Alemany and Rosalind Helderman reported that all this year, Trump resisted handing much of anything over to the government, to the point where his allies feared he was “essentially daring” the FBI to come after them.

Page 3
Based upon the following facts, there is probable cause to believe that the locations to be searched at the PREMISES contain evidence, contraband, fruits of crime, or other items illegally possessed in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 793(e), 1519, or 2071.5

5 One letter stands out here: “e.” We knew that 18 US.C. §§ 793 — the Espionage Act — was one of three crimes the government cited for this search. But it wasn’t clear what portion of the Espionage Act. Some wagered section (d) might be what the government was focused on — the prohibition on giving sensitive national security information “to any person not entitled to receive it” or keeping such information and failing “to deliver it on demand to the officer or employee of the United States entitled to receive it.” But this is about section (e). Section (e) is similar, but it focuses on someone who is in “unauthorized possession” of such information — unlike (d) — and requires the person to have “reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation.” Another key difference: section (d) doesn’t require the officer or employee requesting the information to “demand” the information. And finally, the government makes another key point in a footnote: “18 U.S.C. § 793(e) does not use the term ‘classified information,’ but rather criminalizes the unlawful retention of ‘information relating to the national defense.’” In other words: Trump’s claim that he declassified these documents doesn’t really apply. (Indeed, all three statutes cited by the government for its search don’t require the documents involved to be classified for Trump to have been in violation.)

Page 8
[A] preliminary review of the FIFTEEN BOXES indicated that they contained “newspapers, magazines, printed news articles, photos, miscellaneous print-outs, notes, presidential correspondence, personal and post presidential 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 [sic] identified.6

6 This affidavit, by definition, was written before FBI agents searched Trump’s clubhouse and took away more boxes of suspected classified information. But when National Archives retrieved 15 boxes of official material in January from Mar-a-Lago, it found “a lot of classified records,” according to the affidavit, and flagged the FBI. This also suggests that the Archives was concerned that the classified information was treated carelessly.

Page 11
Boxes Containing Documents Were Transported from the White House to Mar-a-Lago. According to a CBS Miami article titled ''Moving Trucks Spotted At Mar-a-Lago,” 7published Monday, January 18, 2021, at least two moving trucks were observed at the PREMISES on January 18, 2021.

7 Amid the heavy redactions is this paragraph. It refers to a short article published as Trump was days away from leaving the White House, noting that it appears Trump is going to make Mar-a-Lago his new residence. We don’t know what specifically about these trucks was so interesting to the FBI — but given the context, it likely deals with the classified information he took with him from the White House.

Page 17
From May 16-18, 2022, FBI agents conducted a preliminary review of the FIFTEEN BOXES provided to NARA and identified documents with classification markings in fourteen of the FIFTEEN BOXES. A preliminary triage of the documents with classification markings revealed the following approximate numbers: 184 unique documents bearing classification markings, including 67 documents marked as CONFIDENTIAL, 92 documents marked as SECRET, and 25 documents marked as TOP SECRET8. Further, the FBI agents observed markings reflecting the following compartments/dissemination controls: HCS, FISA, ORCON, NOFORN, and SI. Based on my training and experience, I know that documents classified at these levels typically contain NDI. Several of the documents also contained what appears to be FPOTUS 's handwritten notes.

8 This is another major takeaway from the affidavit, that FBI agents found 184 classified documents in the first batch of boxes the National Archives retrieved from Mar-a-Lago. That included 25 documents marked top secret, which is the highest classification in government, and information that, if released, could “reasonably result in exceptionally grave damage to the national security,” the affidavit says. The affidavit goes on to allege that some of those documents potentially contained secrets about confidential informants (HCS), information gathered secretly by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and documents that are not allowed to be shared with other people without high-level approval (ORCON) or especially foreign governments (NOFRON). The affidavit also says these classified documents likely contained national defense information (NDI) and had Trump’s handwritten notes on them (FPOTUS, or former president of the United States).

Page 19
In the second such letter, which is attached as Exhibit I, FPOTUS COUNSEL 1 asked DOJ to consider a few “principles,” which include FPOTUS COUNSEL’s claim that a President has absolute authority to declassify documents. In this letter, FPOTUS COUNSEL 1 requested, among other things, that “DOJ provide this letter to any judicial officer who is asked to rule on any motion pertaining to this investigation, or on any application made in connection with any investigative request concerning this investigation9.

9 Attached as Exhibit 1 is a letter from Trump lawyer Evan Corcoran dated May 25, 2022. The letter shows the contentious back-and-forth dated back to before documents were initially removed from Mar-a-Lago in June, which undermines Trump’s suggestions that relations were cordial during this process and that he was caught off-guard by the sudden search. The inclusion of the letter also shows the government abided by Corcoran’s request to include potentially exculpatory information — something that isn’t always a given in such proceedings. Also of note: In the letter, Corcoran cites a statute — 18 U.S.C. § 1924(a) — which he calls “the primary criminal statute that governs the unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents or material” and argues a president isn’t subject to it. But this is not one of the three statutes the government wound up citing for the search.

I am aware of an article published in Breitbart on May 5, 2022, available at https://www.breitbart.comvoliticsi2022i05/05/documents-mar-a-lago-marked-classified-wereah-eadv-declassifi.ed-kash-patel-savs/, which states that Kash Patel, who is described as a former top FPOTUS administration official, characterized as ''misleading” reports in other news organizations that NARA had found classified materials among records that FPOTUS provided to NARA from Mar-a-Lago. Patel alleged that such reports were misleading because FPOTUS had declassified the materials at issue.10

10 We don’t know what follows this, because it’s heavily redacted. But broaching this subject strongly implies the government has cast doubt on Patel’s claim — the document also goes on to refer to the documents as “classified” — and/or notes, as it does elsewhere, that the documents’ classification status doesn’t bear on the specific crimes involved. Trump’s main defense has been that Trump, as president, can declassify what he wants — and that he did. But there’s a formal process to do it that can take weeks or months, and some high-level nuclear secrets can never be declassified. In addition, former presidents lose that authority, as The Post’s Devlin Barrett, Ellen Nakashima and Josh Dawsey explain. Trump and his team have not presented evidence that he went through the proper channels to declassify the material he took with him. Patel, a lawyer who held numerous national security positions in the Trump administration, has emerged as a central figure in this saga, given these kinds of comments and Trump having appointed him, in the midst of all of this, as one of his two representatives to the National Archives. As The Post’s Philip Bump has noted, that June 19 appointment has raised eyebrows given all we’ve learned in recent weeks.

Page 22
As I previously indicated to you, Mar-a-Lago does not include a secure location authorized for the storage of classified information. As such, it appears that since the time classified documents [redacted] were removed from the secure facilities at the White House and moved to Mar-a-Lago on or around January 20, 2021, they have not been handled in appropriate manner or stored in appropriate location11. 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.

11 This is a letter from the FBI to Trump’s lawyers about material still at Mar-a-Lago. This contemporaneous letter is quite different from Trump’s explanation of the situation. He and his team have maintained that the FBI merely asked him to put an extra lock on the storage room — something they have said they complied with and demonstrated their good-faith cooperation, rendering the search overzealous. This letter, though, requests that the room be “secured” and suggested further action was coming in its reference to “until further notice.” The New York Times has cited a source as saying the FBI reviewed surveillance footage which showed that, “after one instance in which Justice Department officials were in contact with Mr. Trump’s team, boxes were moved in and out of the room.”

Page 29
Based upon this investigation, I believe that the STORAGE ROOM, FPOTUS’s residential suite, Pine Hall, the “45 Office,” and other spaces within the PREMISES are not currently authorized locations for the storage of classified information or NDI.12 Similarly, based upon this investigation, I do not believe that any spaces within the PREMISES have been authorized for the storage of classified information at least since the end of FPOTUS 's Presidential Administration on January 20, 2021. As described above, evidence of the SUBJECT OFFENSES has been stored in multiple locations at the PREMISES.

12 Almost all of what makes up “this investigation” that the FBI refers to has been redacted. But this paragraph 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. The affidavit requests permission from the magistrate judge to search Trump’s office and “ all storage rooms and any other rooms or locations where boxes or records may be stored.” When Trump announced the search, he mentioned the FBI broke into a safe.