What Did The FBI Want in Mar-a-Lago?

The Mar-a-Lago Estate

The Department of Justice says Trump likely attempted to obstruct the probe.

On August 8, the FBI executed an “unannounced” raid at former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. It’s the first time in United States history that the agency has raided the home of a former president, and it’s happened because there’s serious cause to believe a crime has been committed.

Per reporting by The Washington Post, an informant tipped off investigators about the possibility of more classified documents at the Palm Beach club. FBI and DOJ investigators met with Trump lawyers at the resort in June, looking for more information about materials that’d been taken there from the White House after Trump left office.

The extraordinary search comes amid mounting legal trouble for Trump, and ahead of his anticipated bid for the White House in 2024. Here’s what we know about it so far — plus some extra insight from our favorite legal expert, Neal Katyal.

Trump fires back

Donald Trump has sent a retort to the DOJ’s explosive August 30 night court filing on the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago raid, claiming in his own filing on August 31 that “the notion that Presidential records would contain sensitive information should have never been cause for alarm.” His attorneys argued that without a special master to oversee the review, “unchecked investigators” would leak parts of the investigation selectively.

“Left unchecked, the DOJ will impugn, leak, and publicize selective aspects of their investigation with no recourse for [Trump] but to somehow trust the self-restraint of currently unchecked investigators,” they wrote.

“While DOJ may have succeeded in taking a partial filter to their rummaged proceeds, the need for a Special Master remains in place.”

In a footnote to the filing, Trump’s legal team also claimed that the Justice Department had “significantly mischaracterized” a meeting on June 3 between Justice Department official Jay Bratt and Trump attorneys Evan Corcoran and Christina Bobb. The note argued that if this alleged misrepresentation was included in the search warrant affidavit, it may have misled U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart when he signed off on the Mar-a-Lago raid.

DOJ says documents were likely “concealed and removed”

In a dramatic late-night court filing on August 30, the Department of Justice said that appointing a special master to supervise the review of the classified documents recovered from Mar-a-Lago “is unnecessary and would significantly harm important governmental interests, including national security interests.”

The filing makes the most compelling case so far that Trump attempted to “obstruct” the FBI’s investigation. It claims that classified government documents were “likely concealed and removed” from a storage room, so as to interfere with the agency’s efforts to look into his potential mishandling of government information.

More than 100 classified documents were recovered from Mar-a-Lago by the FBI earlier this month, taking the overall total so far over 320. Some were so sensitive that agents needed special extra security clearances to review them.

Redacted version of the search warrant to be made public

A judge has ordered a redacted version of the Mar-a-Lago search warrant affidavit be made public on August 26. The Justice Department has proposed redactions, however it’s not yet known how extensive they’ll be.

Per NBC, U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart has said that the Justice Department’s redactions are “narrowly tailored,” but releasing it in its entirety would reveal too many sensitive details, such as the identities of witnesses.

On August 22, Reinhart indicated that the necessary redactions might render releasing the affidavit meaningless, though he noted the “intense public and historical interest in an unprecedented search of a former President’s residence.”

The justifications set out in the affidavit were compelling enough to lead Reinhart to find that there was probable cause that evidence of crimes would be discovered at Mar-a-Lago if the search was allowed.

On the clock

A judge has given Donald Trump until Friday to better explain why he wants a special master to oversee the review of the classified documents recovered from Mar-a-Lago. District Court Judge Aileen Cannon wants Trump’s lawyers to justify why the court can step in at this juncture, and address the potential effect of such a move on a separate review into whether the affidavit for the search can be made public.

As CNN notes, the judge’s questions and concerns highlighted the shortcomings and incompleteness of Trump’s request.

“What’s she saying is, ‘What are you doing in front of me?'” Mark Schnapp, a criminal defense lawyer in Florida told CNN.

Trump took over 300 classified documents

According to the New York Times, the batch of documents taken from Mar-a-Lago in January included 150 marked as “classified,” prompting serious concern at the Justice Dept. and boosting the criminal investigation that saw FBI agents search the resort in early August.

NYT sources say that the government has retrieved a total of more than 300 classified documents from Trump since he left office, taking into account the number provided by his aides to investigators in June.

Trump brings the fight to the FBI

Former President Trump has asked a judge to review what he’s described as a “shockingly aggressive” search on his Florida property. Per NBC, the motion, which he filed on August 22, asks a judge to appoint a special master to go over the documents seized by the FBI.

This comes after the federal judge who authorized the search reiterated that there was “probable cause that evidence of multiple federal crimes would be found” at the resort.

“Having carefully reviewed the Affidavit before signing the Warrant, I was — and am — satisfied that the facts sworn by the affiant are reliable,” Judge Bruce Reinhart of the Southern District of Florida wrote on August 22.

He added that while he appreciated the “intense public and historical interest in an unprecedented search of a former President’s residence,” he might decide not to release the affidavit since the necessary redactions would make it meaningless.

DOJ wants FBI warrant kept under seal

The Justice Dept. has asked the judge who approved the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago warrant to keep the accompanying affidavit — which explained investigators’ cause to search the resort — under seal. The DOJ cited a need to protect witnesses as well as the seriousness of the ongoing criminal investigation, which “implicates highly classified materials.”

“Disclosure at this juncture of the affidavit supporting probable cause would…cause significant and irreparable damage to this ongoing criminal investigation,” U.S. Attorney Juan Gonzalez and the Justice Department’s counterintelligence and export control chief, Jay Bratt, wrote in Monday’s court filing.

Report: The FBI was searching for classified nuclear documents

According to The Washington Post, the FBI was looking for classified documents related to nuclear weapons when agents searched Mar-a-Lago on August 8. Sources apparently didn’t elaborate on “what type of information the agents were seeking” or whether any such documents were discovered.

In his first public statement since the FBI’s shock search of Donald Trump’s Palm Beach resort on Monday, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the DOJ has filed a motion to unseal the search warrant and property receipt. He added that he’d “personally approved the decision to seek a search warrant in this matter.”

Trump declared on his Truth Social platform late Thursday that he would “not oppose the release of documents,” adding: “I am going a step further by ENCOURAGING the immediate release of those documents.”

What happened on Monday?

According to a source familiar with the matter who spoke to NBC, officers were investigating the handling of classified documents that Trump may have taken to the resort in January 2021. The former president, who was at Trump Tower in New York when the search warrant was executed, protested: “they even broke into my safe.” 

Trump suggested — without including proof — that the raid was politically motivated, adding in a statement: “These are dark times for our nation. Nothing like this has ever happened to a President of the United States before.”

Elie Honig, a former federal and state prosecutor and a CNN senior legal analyst, told CNN’s Erin Burnett that the search’s timing abided by the established department rule not to make politically sensitive moves within 90 days of an election. “Today is just about 90 days out exactly from the midterms. That policy may be a reason why they did it today — because they want to stay clear of that [number], if they’re interpreting that as a 90-day rule,” he said.

A lot. Not for the first time, Donald Trump and his supporters are accusing his enemies of weaponizing the Justice Dept. “We are no better than a third world country, a banana republic,” Trump wrote on Truth Social. 

Per usual, they’re ignoring some serious inconvenient truths — not least the fact that the FBI had to jump through major hoops to get into Mar-a-Lago. To execute the search, the agency had to show probable cause to believe a crime was committed, and that the evidence it was after is relevant to the prosecution of that crime. They also had to show that there was a worry that Trump would destroy the documents.

Added to this, tweets like that from Kevin McCarthy, who claimed that the Department of Justice has reached an “intolerable state of weaponized politicization,” bear no relation to reality.

“This [Attorney General Merrick Garland] is not a political person,” explains Neal Katyal. “Garland was incredibly respected by both sides of the aisle for decades. And when he was nominated to the Supreme Court, it was Republicans like Orrin Hatch who said: ‘I can’t say a bad word about the guy.’ This is as non-political an Attorney General as we’ve had in a long, long time.”

Does Trump have a track record for mishandling records?

Quite possibly. “We know Trump has flushed documents down the toilet,” says Neal. “We know his chief of staff has burned them in the White House fireplace. We know the Secret Service’s deleted all their text messages from January 6, as well as the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security. I mean, it’s amazing to me at this point to think that these guys, you know, preserved anything at all.

My guess is Donald Trump is as incompetent at document destruction as he was with governing, which is to say, there’s probably a bunch of documents at Mar a Lago.”

In January, Trump was forced to return 15 boxes of presidential records to the National Archives. In February, the National Archives asked the Justice Department to investigate whether his treatment of White House records violated federal law, and in April and May, Trump aides at Mar-a-Lago were reportedly interviewed by the FBI in connection with a probe into the records.

In June, investigators visited Mar-a-Lago seeking more information about material that’d been taken to Florida. Trump reportedly greeted the investigators during their visit, and two of his attorneys, Bobb and Evan Corcoran, took them to a basement room where documents were being stored. According to a CNN source, some of these were marked indicating they were top secret.

Per CNN, Trump’s attorneys received a letter from investigators five days later on June 8, asking them to make the room where documents were stored more secure. A padlock was added to the door.

How bad could this get?

“It’s a big deal, even if you’re a big person, like the National Security Adviser, or the president,” says Neal. “So if he did this, if [he mishandled] classified documents about North Korea or whatever, that’s an unforgivable thing. It’s a prosecutable thing. It’s a jailable offense. It’s not something that you get a slap on the wrist for. This is a big, big deal.

“Now, again, I don’t know if these documents are classified or not,” says Neal. “When you are the president and you mishandle documents, there’s a defense — which is: ‘I am the president, so I have declassification authority inherently as part of my constitutional suite of powers.’ But if you’re a former president, you’ve got no such argument whatsoever.”

“If you’re a federal felon, then you can’t vote. So Donald Trump might be trying to restore the voting rights of voting felons now because he wants people to vote, including himself. It is generally understood that if you have no right to vote, you have no right to run for office as well. So a federal felony, in general, would preclude running for president.”

Could Trump’s kids be implicated?

 “I think probably not the male children, Eric and Don, Jr., because they didn’t work in the government, so didn’t have access to classified info,” says Neal. “Maybe the President gave it to Donald, I don’t know. Otherwise, it’s less likely. It may be more likely that Ivanka and Jared are involved because they were actually White House employees. Maybe they’re the ones who brought the documents to Mar-a-Lago. I don’t know if that’s rampant speculation — whether it was Trump or someone else. But those are the types of questions that the FBI will be sorting through right now.”

You can watch Katie’s interview with Neal for more expert insight — including what the outlook is for Trump if he’s found to have mishandled classified info — below.