The Department of Justice (DOJ) [yesterday] released the redacted affidavit that persuaded a judge to agree to issue a search warrant for FBI agents to look for classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, the property owned by the Trump Organization in Florida.
It was bad.
The affidavit explained to the judge the history behind the FBI’s request.
On February 9, 2022, the National Archives and Records Administration (what did I say about archivists?) told the DOJ that after seven months of negotiations, on January 18 it had received 15 boxes of material that former president Trump had held at Mar-a-Lago.
Those boxes contained “highly classified documents,” including some at the very most secret level of our intelligence: those involving our spies and informants.
In those initial 15 boxes, FBI personnel found 184 classified documents. Sixty-seven were labeled CONFIDENTIAL, 92 were SECRET, 25 were TOP SECRET. Some were marked SCS, FISA, ORCON, NOFORN, and SI, the very highest levels of security, involving human intelligence, foreign surveillance, intelligence that cannot be shared with foreign governments, and intelligence that is compartmented to make sure no one has full knowledge of what is in it. The former president had made notes on “several” of the documents.
On June 8, 2022, a DOJ lawyer wrote to Trump’s lawyer to reiterate that Mar-a-Lago was not authorized to store classified information, and warned that the documents were not being handled properly. The DOJ lawyer asked that the material be secured in a single room at Mar-a-Lago “in their current condition until further notice.”
Trump’s lawyers told the DOJ that presidents have the absolute authority to declassify documents—this is not true, by the way—but did not assert he had done so.
The FBI opened a criminal investigation “to, among other things,” figure out how the classified records were taken from the White House and ended up at Mar-a-Lago, and to determine if other classified records might have been improperly taken and stored, and to figure out who might have taken and mishandled them.
They concluded that there was good reason to think that more classified records remained at Mar-a-Lago and that investigators would find evidence that Trump and his allies were obstructing the government’s effort to recover the material.
The person who made the affidavit said they were a special agent with the FBI, “familiar with efforts used to unlawfully collect, retain, and disseminate sensitive government information, including classified N[ational] D[efense] I[nformation].” They swore that “there is probable cause to believe” that locations at Mar-a-Lago “contain evidence, contraband, fruits of crime, or other items illegally possessed.”
The affidavit confirmed that the Department of Justice is “conducting a criminal investigation concerning the improper removal and storage of classified information in unauthorized spaces, as well as the unlawful concealment or removal of government records,” and asked for the affidavit to be sealed because “the items and information to be seized are relevant to an ongoing investigation and the FBI has not yet identified all potential criminal confederates nor located all evidence related to its investigation.”
Sidestepping Trump’s insistence that he could declassify whatever he wished when president, the affidavit specifies that the documents could cause damage even if they are not classified, and it notes that retaining “information related to the national defense” is illegal.
The information that Trump stole classified documents itself was eye-popping, and then that he refused to return them was astonishing. Now, the knowledge of the extent of it, and that it included information from our human sources, is stunning.
AND THIS WAS JUST THE AFFIDAVIT TO GET A SEARCH WARRANT TO GET MORE RETAINED DOCUMENTS… which the FBI did on August 8.
We still don’t know what was in those more recently recovered boxes.
Trump is in serious trouble…and so are the rest of us. This stolen and mishandled classified intelligence compromises our security. The best-case scenario is that it was never seen by anyone who knew what they were looking at. Even that would mean that our allies have every reason to be leery about sharing information with us again.
But that’s the best-case scenario. We have to wonder, who else now knows the secrets designed to keep Americans safe? Multiple news stories during Trump’s presidency noted that even then, Mar-a-Lago was notoriously insecure. And, unthinkable though it should be but sadly is not, what if secret documents have already been given or sold into the hands of foreign actors whose interests conflict with ours?
I have been writing today about Trump’s first impeachment and the hearings where Marie Yovanovitch, Fiona Hill, and Alexander Vindman, immigrants all, who served our nation faithfully and fully, risked—and ultimately lost—their jobs to warn us that Trump was willing to compromise our national security for his own interests.
“He has betrayed our national security, and he will do so again,” House impeachment manager Adam Schiff warned the Senate. “You can’t trust [Trump] to do the right thing. Not for one minute, not for one election, not for the sake of our country. You just can’t. He will not change and you know it.” Schiff begged them to say “enough.”
But they would not, and they did not, and here we are.
-Heather Cox Richardson