One of former President Trump’s main claims about the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago is being undermined by Friday’s release of a key affidavit.
Trump has pushed the narrative that he and his lawyers were cooperating with the Department of Justice’s inquiries about documents from his time in the White House. This, he claims, means that the Aug. 8 raid on his Florida estate was gratuitous.
But the affidavit that persuaded a judge to grant the search warrant tells a different story.
Even in heavily redacted form, the affidavit points out that there was a prolonged process lasting around seven months in 2021 before Trump’s team coughed up any documents at all.
It gives a far less friendly account than Team Trump has done of events in June of this year.
The former president and his allies have, for instance, described an affable visit to Mar-a-Lago by a senior DOJ official, Jay Bratt, and three FBI agents on June 3. According to a Trump legal filing earlier this week, one of the FBI agents, having been shown the storage room in which some documents were held, purportedly said, “Now it all makes sense.”
The same Trump filing refers to a June 8 letter in which the DOJ “requested, in pertinent part, that the storage room be secured” – a request that is implied to have been met when Trump told staff to put a second lock on the door.
By contrast, the DOJ’s affidavit quotes a letter on the same date – presumably the same letter – reiterating to a Trump lawyer that there was no “secure location authorized for the storage of classified information” anywhere at the resort.
The letter makes clear that the DOJ’s request was not some generalized security check-up but a demand for the “preservation” of the storage room in its “current condition until further notice” – phrasing that is far more redolent of an investigation of a possible crime scene than a friendly chat about padlocks.
The filing also includes, as an exhibit, a May 2022 letter from Trump lawyer Evan Corcoran to Bratt, the head of the counterintelligence section of the DOJ’s national security division.
In the letter, Corcoran argues that presidents have “absolute authority to declassify documents” and that, in any event, no president can be prosecuted for “actions involving classified documents.”
Those claims are contentious and, again, strike a different tone than the one Trump and his allies have sought to portray.
Put it all together and the effect on Trump’s preferred narrative of the investigation seems stark.
“It blows it to smithereens,” Harry Litman told this column.
Litman, a former U.S. attorney and deputy assistant attorney general, focused on the various delays by the Trump side as the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and then the DOJ sought missing documents.
The affidavit seeking the search warrant, Litman said, “is at the end of an exasperating, very prolonged dallying by them that would never be put up with from any other citizen.”
The argument that Trump may simply have declassified all the relevant documents also drew the sharpest comment yet from President Biden, who had previously sought to keep his distance from the investigation.
“I’ve declassified everything in the world. I’m president, I can do it all!” Biden sarcastically told reporters at the White House Friday soon after the affidavit became public. “C’mon!”
Meanwhile a footnote in the affidavit made clear that the classification status of the documents in question would not have a make-or-break bearing on at least one of the possible crimes being investigated.
Trump, characteristically, is pressing on full-bore with his allegations that he is being mistreated for political reasons over the raid.
He argued in a Truth Social post Friday that the judge in the case, Bruce Reinhart, “should NEVER have allowed the Break-In of my home.”
He further alleged that Reinhart bore “animosity and hatred” toward him.
Yet even while deploying his usual combative rhetoric, Trump still insisted that his side had enjoyed “a close working relationship regarding document turnover.”
It’s impossible to square that claim with the FBI’s assertion in the affidavit that investigators had “probable cause to believe that evidence of obstruction will be found” in a Mar-a-Lago search.
The bureau’s reasons for this assertion remain mysterious, however, given the extensive redactions to the 32-page affidavit.
In a related document also released on Friday, the DOJ contended that the redactions were necessary because of the imperative to “protect the safety of multiple civilian witnesses” in the burgeoning case.
The department further argued 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.”
Still, information that was disclosed brought a new level of granular detail into the public domain.
In particular, it revealed that of the 15 boxes that had been retrieved from Mar-a-Lago roughly one year after Trump left office, 14 contained information that had classified markings.
In total, the affidavit said, there were 184 such documents, 67 of which were marked as confidential, 92 of which were marked as secret and 25 of which were marked as top secret.
Those details alone disconcert experts in the field.
“While we don’t know what that information pertains to, by its very definition it could conceivably threaten individuals’ lives,” said Mark Zaid, an attorney who specializes in national security matters.
Zaid emphasized that it is not yet clear that Trump himself is the target of the criminal investigation, only that investigators believe evidence of a crime could be found at Mar-a-Lago.
Even so, he warned, “I do think, based on the affidavit, that the jeopardy faced by one or more people continues to rise.
“I don’t know who the one or more people are,” he added. “It could be Mar-a-Lago staff, it could be the president, it could be his lawyers.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.
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This story was originally published August 27, 2022 5:54 AM.