5 key takeaways from release of affidavit in FBI search of Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate

·7 min read

The Justice Department on Friday unsealed a redacted version of the affidavit used to secure the warrant for the FBI to search former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.

The release of the 38-page document comes a day after a federal judge ordered the DOJ to unseal the affidavit — which details the probable cause on which the search warrant was based — without revealing the identities of witnesses, law enforcement agents, grand jury information or anything else that would compromise the ongoing investigation into Trump’s handling of classified materials.

Multiple news organizations had filed motions asking for its release, citing intense public interest in the case.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the unsealed affidavit:

FBI found more than 100 classified documents in its initial review

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump meets with members of Congress, July 17, 2018. (Yuri Gripas/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

It was reported earlier this year that the National Archives and Records Administration retrieved 15 boxes of documents and other items from Mar-a-Lago in January. According to the affidavit, the FBI reviewed those boxes in mid-May and found that 14 of the 15 contained classified information of some sort.

The boxes allegedly included 184 unique documents with classification markings, including 67 marked as confidential, 92 marked as secret and 25 marked as top secret. Trump has denied reports that some of the documents were tied to nuclear weapons. The FBI said some of the documents were marked "HCS," referring to clandestine human sources, or intelligence personnel, and “SI,” which is information derived from monitoring foreign communication channels. The affidavit alleges “several of the documents also contained what appears to be [Trump’s] handwritten notes.”

Heavy redactions needed to protect a ‘significant number of civilian witnesses’

A redacted document
A stock image of a redacted document. (Getty Images)

In addition to the affidavit, a Justice Department court filing was released explaining the need for heavy redactions. (That memo was itself heavily redacted.) According to U.S. Attorney Juan Antonio Gonzalez, “the materials the government marked for redaction in the attached document must remain sealed to protect the safety and privacy of a significant number of civilian witnesses, in addition to law enforcement personnel.”

“If witnesses’ identities are exposed, they could be subjected to harms including retaliation, intimidation, or harassment, and even threats to their physical safety,” read the memo. “As the Court has already noted, ‘these concerns are not hypothetical in this case.’” Gonzalez added that “the government has well-founded concerns that steps may be taken to frustrate or otherwise interfere with this investigation if facts in the affidavit were prematurely disclosed.”

The FBI did not consider Mar-a-Lago a secure place to store classified documents, even with the extra lock

Mar-a-Lago
Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate, Palm Beach, Fla. (MediaPunch/IPX via AP)

Trump has repeatedly insisted that the FBI raid was unnecessary because, he claims, he and his legal representatives had previously been cooperating with the Justice Department in its investigation of the documents at Mar-a-Lago. In particular, he has noted that in searching the Palm Beach estate, agents broke a lock that had been added at the DOJ’s request to a storage area that housed some of the documents, after a department official visited the property in June.

The affidavit unsealed Friday includes part of a letter a Justice Department official sent to Trump's council after that June visit, requesting that the storage room be secured.

The letter, part of which is redacted, explains that because “Mar-a-Lago does not include a secure location authorized for the storage of classified information,” the classified documents that have been held there since Trump left the White House in January 2021 “have not been handled in an appropriate manner or stored in an appropriate location.”

“Accordingly,” the letter continues, “we ask that the room at Mar-a-Lago where the documents had been stored be secured and that all of the boxes that were moved from the White House to Mar-a-Lago (along with any other items in that room) be preserved in that room in their current condition until further notice.”

[Read the FBI's affidavit to search Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate]

The affidavit goes on to note that Trump’s counsel sent an email the following day acknowledging receipt of the DOJ letter, but that doesn’t seem to have satisfied the department’s concerns about the security of the documents at Mar-a-Lago. Toward the end of the heavily redacted court filing, the FBI seems to conclude that, even with the additional lock, the storage area is still not an appropriate setting for the kinds of documents that had been transported to Mar-a-Lago. It also appears to suggest that all of the boxes that had been relocated from the White House may not have been moved to that reinforced storage space as the DOJ requested.

“Based upon this investigation, I believe that the STORAGE ROOM, FPOTUS’s residential suite, Pine Hall, the ’45 Office,’ and other spaces within the PREMISES are not currently authorized locations for the storage of classified information or [National Defense Information],” the affidavit states. “Similarly, based upon this investigation, I do not believe that any spaces within the PREMISES have been authorized for the storage of classified information at least since the end of FPOTUS’s Presidential Administration on January 20, 2021.”

There was probable cause to believe evidence of obstruction would be found

Local law enforcement officer
A local law enforcement officer at Mar-a-Lago on Aug. 9. (Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images)

A search warrant and property receipt unsealed days after the FBI’s Aug. 8 search of Trump’s Palm Beach, Fla., home indicated that the former president is under investigation for several potential crimes, including possible violations of the Espionage Act and potential obstruction of justice charges.

In the affidavit, prosecutors said there was probable cause to believe that additional classified documents or presidential records “subject to record retention requirements” would be found at Mar-a-Lago, and that there was also probable cause to believe that evidence of obstruction would be found on the premises.

“There is Probable Cause to Believe That Documents Containing Classified NDI and Presidential Records Remain at the Premises,” the affidavit states.

Trump complains about redactions — and attacks the judge

Former President Donald Trump
Former President Donald Trump leaving Trump Tower on Aug. 10. (James Devaney/GC Images via Getty Images)

In a post on his social media platform Truth Social, Trump complained that the affidavit was “heavily redacted!!!” and lamented turning over the documents he did before the FBI search.

“WE GAVE THEM MUCH,” Trump wrote before attacking the federal judge who approved the warrant.

“Judge Bruce Reinhart should NEVER have allowed the Break-In of my home,” Trump added. “He recused himself two months ago from one of my cases based on his animosity and hatred of your favorite President, me. What changed? Why hasn’t he recused himself on this case? Obama must be very proud of him right now!”

The former president and his lawyers never formally requested Reinhart recuse himself from the case, and Trump and his team did not participate in legal arguments over the affidavit’s release.

Trump has claimed without evidence that the investigation is a politically motivated “weaponization” of the Justice Department. He’s also suggested that the FBI planted evidence and insisted that he had a “standing order” to declassify documents that were brought to his residence from the Oval Office.

President Biden has denied that he had any advance notice of the search.

At the White House Friday, Biden was asked whether he believes national security was threatened by documents at Mar-a-Lago.

“We’ll let the Justice Department determine that,” Biden responded.