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Mar-a-Lago search focused on espionage, destruction of records

Unsealed search warrant documents show FBI agents seized four sets of documents marked as 'Top Secret' from Trump residence

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland delivers a statement at the Department of Justice on Thursday about the FBI's search of former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence.
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland delivers a statement at the Department of Justice on Thursday about the FBI's search of former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Donald Trump is under investigation for violations of the Espionage Act, as well as destruction of records, according to court documents unsealed Friday about the search of the former president’s residence at Mar-a-Lago on Monday.

The documents were unsealed after the Justice Department notified a Florida magistrate judge that Trump would not object to unsealing the warrant and property receipt from the search. The documents showed that FBI agents seized 11 sets of documents marked with some form of classification, including four marked as “Top Secret.”

Prior to the filing, Trump defended his actions in a written statement. “Number one, it was all declassified. Number two, they didn’t need to ‘seize’ anything. They could have had it anytime they wanted without playing politics and breaking into Mar-a-Lago,” Trump said.

Friday’s filing comes at the end of a weeklong political storm, kicked off by Monday’s search. In his first public statement after it, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said Thursday he approved the search himself. And the Justice Department moved to make documents publicly available following Trump’s own public statements about it.

Republicans have so far stood by the former president in the wake of a finding from a federal judge that there was probable cause federal law enforcement would find evidence of a crime, and they echoed Trump’s accusations that the search was politically motivated.

Before Friday’s filing, Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, said he would not be satisfied with the release of the warrant or receipt, saying he would still have questions. “We are very concerned about the method that was used to raid Mar-a-Lago,” Turner told reporters.

Turner, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said he and other members of the panel would send the FBI a letter asking about its relationship with any informants who supplied information prior to the search.

Turner also downplayed the seriousness of reporting that the FBI sought classified information about nuclear weapons.

“It depends on what the nuclear information is,” Turner said.

Steve Vladeck, a University of Texas law professor, pointed out on Twitter that several provisions of the espionage law hinge not on whether the information itself is classified but whether it could hurt U.S. interests if it is transmitted to someone not authorized to have it.

Documents unsealed

The search warrant documents unsealed Friday indicate that FBI agents were seeking evidence of violations of three statutes relating to espionage; “concealment, removal or mutilation” of government records; and destruction, alteration or falsification of records in federal investigations.

Violations of the Espionage Act come with up to 10 years in prison per violation, and the destruction statute contemplates up 20 years of prison time.

Democrats cautioned Republicans against attacking the FBI and federal law enforcement until the public learned more about the search. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters Friday she was concerned that statements by Trump and other Republicans could spark violence against federal law enforcement.

“You would think there would be an adult in the Republican room that would say, ‘Just calm down, see what the facts are, and let’s go for that,’ instead of, again, instigating assaults on law enforcement,” Pelosi said.

House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chair Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said in a statement he was concerned about the safety of information found at Mar-a-Lago. He said the committee may investigate, separate from the criminal investigation into Trump.

“The protection of classified information, and particularly the protection of sources and methods, is an issue of the highest priority for the Intelligence Committee, and as we learn more, we will responsibly discharge our oversight responsibilities,” Schiff said.

Trump attacks

Prior to the filing, Trump released a statement saying he is “ENCOURAGING” the immediate release of the documents, while at the same time arguing without evidence that they were written by Democrats.

“This unprecedented political weaponization of law enforcement is inappropriate and highly unethical,” Trump’s statement said.

Trump himself downplayed the seriousness of the possibility that sensitive information about nuclear weapons was found in the FBI search, in a statement issued before the filing.

“President Barack Hussein Obama kept 33 million pages of documents, much of them classified. How many of them pertained to nuclear? Word is, lots!” Trump said.

Trump’s statement was rebutted by the National Archives, which asserted in a statement issued Friday that it, not Obama, retains control of the more than 30 million documents from Obama’s two terms in office.

On Thursday, The Washington Post reported the FBI sought classified documents related to the country’s nuclear weapons. On Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the search found 11 sets of classified documents during the search, including several with top secret classification.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, sent his own letter to Garland and Wray seeking answers about the search.

“Your refusal to fully and transparently answer legitimate questions about the motivations and justifications for such provocative conduct by your agencies serves only to further damage the integrity of the DOJ and the FBI, is unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” Scott said.

The letter asked for an unredacted copy of the warrant, its supporting documents and internal documents about the search. It also questioned whether DOJ officials communicated with anyone in the White House about the search in advance.

Earlier this week, Scott sent a fundraising letter to supporters threatening the pair with impeachment if they do not provide answers.

Garland said Trump was provided the documents in question on Monday, and legal experts said he could have released them himself.

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