Mar-a-Lago affidavit: 184 classified documents recovered in January

FBI agents sought court permission to search former president Donald Trump’s home this month after reviewing 184 classified documents that were kept at the Florida property after he left the White House – including several with Trump’s apparent handwriting on them – and interviewing “a significant number of civilian witnesses,” court filings unsealed Friday say.

The details contained in an affidavit and related memo, nearly three weeks after the Aug. 8 search, underscore the high stakes and unprecedented nature of an ongoing criminal probe into whether Trump and his aides took secret government papers and refused to return all of the material – even in the face of repeated demands from senior law enforcement officials.

The affidavit suggests that if some of the classified documents returned from Mar-a-Lago to the National Archives in January had fallen into the wrong hands, they could have revealed sensitive details about human intelligence sources, or how spy agencies intercept the electronic communications of foreign targets.

“There is also probable cause to believe that evidence of obstruction will be found,” the affidavit says.

Federal Magistrate Judge Bruce E. Reinhart read the affidavit and approved the search on Aug. 5. Three days later, FBI agents dressed in polos and khakis executed the search warrant at the Palm Beach estate, carting away an additional 20 boxes of items from a bedroom, office and a first-floor storage room, according to an inventory of what was retrieved from the property that was made public earlier this month.

Those boxes contained 11 sets of classified documents, the inventory says.

The warrant authorizing the search said agents were seeking all “physical documents and records constituting evidence, contraband, fruits of crime, or other items illegally possessed in violation of three potential crimes,” including a part of the Espionage Act outlawing gathering, transmitting, or losing national defense information. The warrant also cites destruction of records and concealment or mutilation of government material.

Of the 38-pages in the affidavit, nearly half are entirely or mostly redacted. In a statement after the document was unsealed, Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich, said: “this is a grave travesty, and what is unredacted only further supports President Trump’s position, there was NO reason for a raid – it is all politics!”

Affidavits are detailed documents about an investigation that law enforcement officers submit to judges in hopes that they will approve their applications for search warrants. The sworn document typically contains key information about witnesses, why agents believe evidence of a crime can be found on a certain property or device, and investigative steps taken prior to a search.

It is unusual to make the details of such an affidavit public, particularly in an ongoing investigation. But numerous media organizations and other parties have asked that the document be unsealed, citing the extreme public interest in the case involving a former president who may run again in 2024.

Reinhart granted the request to unseal the affidavit but allowed the Justice Department to propose redactions of information that government officials said could jeopardize the probe or the safety of witnesses.

The affidavit says federal agents sought permission to conduct the search after reviewing the contents of 15 boxes Trump returned to the National Archives earlier this year and finding found documents with classification markings. Some were marked “HCS,” a category of highly classified government information; others related to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and material meant not to be shared with foreign nations. The “HCS” acronym stands for “HUMINT Control Systems” and refers to the government systems used to protect intelligence gathered from secret human sources, the affidavit says.

In total, those boxes contained 184 unique documents bearing classification markings, according to the affidavit. Some of the documents, the affidavit said, include what appear to be handwritten notes by Trump. Twenty-five of those were marked top secret, while 92 were marked with the lower classification of “secret”; 67 were marked “confidential,” the lowest level of classification.

The affidavit also includes a May 25 letter from Trump lawyer Evan Corcoran to the Justice Department, defending the president’s conduct by arguing Trump had the ultimate classification authority within the government. In the letter, Corcoran insisted his client had cooperated with the investigation, and complained about leaks. Criminalizing Trump’s conduct over classified documents, Corcoran argued, would “implicate grave constitutional separation-of-power issues.” The lawyer requested that any application to a judge or grand jury in relation to the probe include the letter defending Trump.

A separate, partially redacted document that was also unsealed Friday describes prosecutors’ rationale for withholding significant parts of the affidavit, and shows that a large number of individuals have provided information to the FBI about the classified documents that were kept at Mar-a-Lago.

The memo says the redactions to the affidavit were necessary to “protect the safety and privacy of a significant number of civilian witnesses, in addition to law enforcement personnel, as well as to protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation and to avoid disclosure of grand jury material.”

The search intensified Trump’s long-standing animus toward the Justice Department and the FBI. Emails, documents and interviews show that it followed months of conflict between the former president and law enforcement agencies about getting the documents – which are protected under the Presidential Records Act – into the custody of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Some material recovered in the search is considered extraordinarily sensitive, two people familiar with the search have said, and could reveal carefully guarded secrets about U.S. intelligence-gathering methods. One of the people said the information is “among the most sensitive secrets we hold.”

Like others interviewed about the search, the two people spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss details that have not been publicly released.