Mar-a-Lago research: what can follow in an investigation with legal peril
A newly released FBI document helps flesh out an investigation into classified documents at the Florida estate of former US President Donald Trump. But many questions remain, particularly because half of the affidavit, which explained why the FBI searched the property, was blacked out.
This document, which the FBI submitted so it could obtain a warrant to search Trump’s winter home, provides new details about the volume and top-secret nature of what was recovered from Mar-a-Lago in January. It shows how Justice Department officials had raised concerns months before the raid that tightly held government secrets were being stored illegally and before returning in August with a court-approved warrant and locating even more classified documents. on the property.
All of this raises the question of whether a crime has been committed and, if so, by whom. The answers may not come quickly.
A ministry official this month described the investigation as in its early stages, suggesting more work is ahead as investigators review the documents they have removed and continue to interview witnesses. At a minimum, the investigation presents a political distraction for Trump as he lays the groundwork for a possible presidential race.
Then there is the obvious legal peril.
A preview of what’s next:
WHAT IS THE FBI INVESTIGATING?
None of the government legal documents released so far names Trump — or anyone else — as a potential target of the investigation. But the warrant and accompanying affidavit make it clear that the investigation is active and criminal in nature.
The department is investigating potential violations of several laws, including an espionage law that governs the collection, transmission or loss of national defense information. The other statutes deal with the mutilation and suppression of documents as well as the destruction, alteration or falsification of documents in federal investigations.
The investigation began quietly with a referral from the National Archives and Records Administration, which recovered 15 boxes of documents from Mar-a-Lago in January – 14 of which contained classified information. In total, according to the FBI affidavit, officials found 184 documents bearing classification marks, some of which suggested they contained information from highly sensitive human sources. Several had what appeared to be Trump’s handwritten notes, the affidavit states.
The FBI spent months investigating how the documents got from the White House to Mar-a-Lago, to find out if other classified documents might exist on the property. The bureau also attempted to identify the person or persons « who may have deleted or retained classified information without authorization and/or in an unauthorized space, » the affidavit states.
So far, the FBI has interviewed a « significant number of civilian witnesses, » according to an unsealed Justice Department file on Friday, and is asking them for « further information. » The FBI has not identified all « potential criminal accomplices nor located all evidence related to its investigation ».
WILL SOMEONE BE IN CHARGE?
It’s hard to say at this point. To obtain a search warrant, federal agents must persuade a judge that there is probable cause to believe there is evidence of a crime at the location they want to search.
But search warrants are not an automatic precursor to a criminal prosecution, and they certainly do not signal that charges are imminent.
The laws in question are crimes punishable by imprisonment.
A law involving the mishandling of national defense information has been used in recent years to prosecute a government contractor who stashed tons of sensitive documents at his Maryland home (he was sentenced to nine years in prison) and a National Security Agency employee who passed on classified information to someone who was not authorized to receive it (the case is pending).
Attorney General Merrick Garland did not reveal his thoughts on the matter. Asked last month about Trump in a separate investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021 riot on Capitol Hill, he replied that « no one is above the law. »
WHAT DID TRUMP SAID?
Trump, furious at the investigation into the records, released a statement on Friday saying he and his team cooperated with the Justice Department and that its officials « GAVE THEM A LOT. »
This is at odds with the Trump team’s portrayal in the affidavit and the fact that the FBI’s search took place despite warnings months earlier that the documents were not properly stored and that it was not there was no safe place for them at Mar-a-Lago.
A letter made public as part of the affidavit sets out the arguments Trump’s legal team intends to make as the investigation proceeds. The May 25 letter from attorney Mr. Evan Corcoran to Jay Bratt, the Justice Department’s head of counterintelligence, articulates a strong and expansive vision for executive power.
Corcoran claimed it was a « fundamental principle » that a president had the absolute power to declassify documents – although he didn’t actually say Trump did. He also said the primary law governing the mishandling of classified information does not apply to the president.
The law he cited in the letter was not among those the affidavit suggests the Justice Department is basing its investigation on. And in a footnote to the affidavit, an FBI agent pointed out that the National Defense Information Act does not use the term classified information.
WHAT DID THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION SAY?
The White House has been particularly circumspect about the investigation, with officials repeatedly saying they would let the Justice Department do its job.
National Security Spokesman John Kirby, responding to a question this week about whether the administration would conduct a damage assessment on Mar-a-Lago’s sensitive secrets, replied that he would not. didn’t want to get ahead of the FBI.
President Joe Biden appeared on Friday to scoff at the idea that Trump could have simply declassified all documents in his possession, telling reporters: « I just want you to know that I have declassified everything in the world. I’m President, I can do — Let’s go! »
He then said he would « let the Department of Justice deal with it. »