Mar-a-Lago affidavit reveals little about Trump documents
Secret and top secret documents found among President Trump’s papers
An affidavit released Friday afternoon by the U.S. District Court for South Florida sheds light on why a team of roughly 30 armed FBI agents seized boxes of documents from former President Donald Trump’s Florida estate earlier this month. But the heavily redacted document raises more questions than it answers.
Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart, a Trump appointee, directed federal prosecutors to release the affidavit due to intense public interest following the raid on Trump’s private estate and golf resort at Mar-a-Lago that drew national attention. A top Department of Justice lawyer, Jay Bratt, argued that much of the information in the affidavit must remain confidential to protect an ongoing criminal investigation. Search warrant affidavits are typically sealed until prosecutors file charges. Nevertheless, he complied with Reinhart’s direction to submit a redacted version and to give an explanation for each section that was blacked out. That ended up being more than half of the 38-page document.
The affidavit said that Trump’s counsel sent the United States National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) 15 boxes of documents in January. After reviewing the contents, the archivists sent a letter to the DOJ reporting that some of the documents were highly classified and might contain “national defense information,” or NDI. They also said there might be more still at Mar-a-Lago.
Investigators said they found 184 documents that they argue did not belong at the Florida resort. There were as many 67 pieces of information classified as confidential, 92 documents marked as secret, and 25 documents marked top secret.
Former DOJ criminal attorney Thomas Swaim says the information visible to the public still fails to identify a “smoking gun.” Every president takes documents home after their time in office, and anything they touch could easily be classified as NDI.
“It’s a big deal when you go into any privately-owned structure, whether it’s a business or an office, but there’s even a higher scrutiny when you go into a private residence,” Swaim told WORLD. “You’ve got to show probable cause to believe that there’s evidence of a current crime and that you expect it to be found when you go in.”
The agent who wrote the affidavit titled one section: “There is probable cause to believe the Documents containing classified NDI and presidential records remain at the premises.” The following seven paragraphs are completely blacked out. The unredacted information only reveals that the FBI was particularly interested in a storage room, Trump’s residence, Pine Hall, and “the 45 Office.”
The FBI is investigating whether Trump has violated a subsection of Title 18, which deals with gathering, transmitting, or losing defense information. According to the affidavit, the author is an FBI agent assigned to the Washington Field Office who has training in counterintelligence and espionage investigations—someone “familiar with efforts used to unlawfully collect, retain and disseminate sensitive government information.”
In layman’s terms, Swaim called the position a “spymaster,” someone who identifies foreign spies trying to access U.S. secrets. It struck him as unusual that an agent with this training would be helping to lead an investigation on a former U.S. president: “The implication is that they’re concerned that Trump is sharing this information with some foreign power. But from what I can see from the affidavit, there’s no evidence of that alleged. … The fact that [Trump] looked at them, agreed that they probably didn’t need to be in his possession, and turned it back is to his credit.”
Former FBI special agent Jim Long disagreed—while emphasizing his comments did not represent any views other than his own. The 20-year career special agent said the presence of these classification designations indicate the documents contained sensitive compartmented information (SCI) about U.S. intelligence sources and methods that could be dangerous if not carefully transported, stored, and shared.
“SCI is the most sensitive information the U.S. government has,” Long told WORLD. “Unless there was something that he needed to know about, he has absolutely no business at all having these records. I’m sure he took some precautions, but their [presence at Mar-a-Lago] could have serious harm on national security.”
In his time with the FBI, Long rarely interacted with top-secret documents. He remembers that when he was handed one from the CIA, he was instructed to drive, without delay, to drop it off at the appropriate facility.
More importantly, classified documents are shared on a need-to-know basis. Even agents with the highest levels of clearance may not be allowed to view information that doesn’t pertain to them. That level of scrutiny, Long says, is there to protect U.S. servants who could be in danger if the information were released.
The affidavit reported that many of the documents returned in the 15 boxes in January were mixed in with handwritten notes, newspaper clippings, and miscellaneous print-outs. Some were marked NOFORN: “Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals/Governments/US Citizens.”
Long noted that the president has power to declassify documents, but he did not know if those powers might grant Trump a legal defense after he left office.
In a separate memo, the DOJ said the blacked out portions of the affidavit could identify witnesses. The memo redacted what identifying features were contained in the affidavit and warned that releasing this would make current and potential witnesses the target of threats, citing attacks made on law enforcement in the wake of the Mar-a-Lago search.
Page 30 of the affidavit defends the significant redactions: “Premature disclosure could … allow criminal parties an opportunity to flee, destroy evidence, change patterns of behavior, and notify criminal confederates.”
Trump posted to Truth Social, the social media platform he founded, shortly after the affidavit was released, calling the investigation a witch hunt and the affidavit a “public relations subterfuge.”
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