Tue | Nov 29, 2022

FBI seized ‘top secret’ documents from Trump's Florida home

Published:Friday | August 12, 2022 | 3:04 PM
The notice filed by the Justice Department to the U.S. District Court South District of Florida informing the judge that lawyers for former President Donald Trump did not object to the government's motion to unseal the search warrant for Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate, is photographed Friday, Aug. 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recovered documents that were labeled “top secret” from former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, according to court papers released Friday. 

A federal judge unsealed the warrant that authorised the unprecedented search this week.

A property receipt unsealed by the court shows FBI agents took 11 sets of classified records from the estate during a search on Monday. The property receipt is a document prepared by federal agents to specify what was taken during a search.

The seized records include some that were marked as classified and top secret. The court records did not provide specific details about the documents or what information they might contain.

In a statement Friday, Trump claimed that the documents seized by agents at his Florida club were “all declassified,” and argued that he would have turned over the documents to the Justice Department if asked.

While incumbent presidents have the power to declassify information, that authority lapses as soon as they leave office and it was not clear if the documents in question have ever been declassified. Trump also kept possession of the documents despite multiple requests from agencies, including the National Archives, to turn over presidential records in accordance with federal law.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart, the same judge who signed off on the search warrant unsealed the warrant and property receipt Friday at the request of the Justice Department after Attorney General Merrick Garland declared there was “substantial public interest in this matter,” and Trump backed the warrant's “immediate” release. The Justice Department told the judge Friday afternoon that Trump's lawyers did not object to the proposal to make it public.

In messages posted on his Truth Social platform, Trump wrote, “Not only will I not oppose the release of documents ... I am going a step further by ENCOURAGING the immediate release of those documents.”

Trump himself has been given at least some of the records the government was seeking to unseal, but he and his lawyers have declined, so far, to make them public.

The Justice Department's request is striking because such documents traditionally remain sealed during a pending investigation. But the department appeared to recognise that its silence since the search had created a vacuum for bitter verbal attacks by Trump and his allies, and that the public was entitled to the FBI's side about what prompted Monday's action at the former president's home.

“The public's clear and powerful interest in understanding what occurred under these circumstances weighs heavily in favour of unsealing,” said a motion filed in federal court in Florida on Thursday.

The documents could disclose unflattering information about Trump and about FBI scrutiny of his handling of sensitive government documents right as he prepares for another run for the White House. During his successful 2016 campaign, he pointed frequently to an FBI investigation into his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, over whether she mishandled classified information.

Several news organizations separately petitioned Reinhart to release all of the documents relating to the search given the high level of public interest.

To obtain a search warrant, federal authorities must prove to a judge that probable cause exists to believe that a crime was committed. Garland said he personally approved the warrant, a decision he said the department did not take lightly given that standard practice where possible is to select less intrusive tactics than a search of one's home.

In this case, according to a person familiar with the matter, there was substantial engagement with Trump and his representatives prior to the search warrant, including a subpoena for records and a visit to Mar-a-Lago a couple of months ago by FBI and Justice Department officials to assess how the documents were stored. The person was not authorised to discuss the matter by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Neither Trump nor the FBI has said anything about what documents the FBI might have recovered, or what precisely agents were looking for.

FBI and Justice Department policy cautions against discussing ongoing investigations, both to protect the integrity of the inquiries and to avoid unfairly maligning someone who is being scrutinised but winds up ultimately not being charged. That's especially true in the case of search warrants, where supporting court papers are routinely kept secret as the investigation proceeds.

In this case, though, Garland cited the fact that Trump himself had provided the first public confirmation of the FBI search, “as is his right.” The Justice Department, in its new filing, also said that disclosing information about it now would not harm the court's functions.

The Justice Department under Garland has been leery of public statements about politically charged investigations, or of confirming to what extent it might be investigating Trump as part of a broader probe into the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol and efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

The department has tried to avoid being seen as injecting itself into presidential politics, as happened in 2016 when then-FBI Director James Comey made an unusual public statement announcing that the FBI would not be recommending criminal charges against Clinton regarding her handling of email — and when he spoke up again just over a week before the election to notify Congress that the probe was being effectively reopened because of the discovery of new emails.

The Mar-a-Lago search warrant served Monday was part of an ongoing Justice Department investigation into the discovery of classified White House records recovered from Trump's home in Palm Beach, Florida, earlier this year. The National Archives had asked the department to investigate after saying 15 boxes of records it retrieved from the estate included classified records. Multiple federal laws govern the handling of classified information.

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