By Lucy Farringer / News and Sports Reporter
Suspicious that government documents, even classified documents, had been stored in an unsecured facility, the FBI searched Former President Donald Trump’s vacation home, Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach Florida on Aug. 8.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the agents uncovered over 20 boxes of material that had never been returned to the National Archives despite a request several months prior. According to CNN, one of Trump’s lawyers claimed in June that all classified information had been returned at the time. In these boxes, among several photos, notes and mementos, the FBI discovered 11 sets of classified documents. Four of these sets of documents were marked “top secret”: files only supposed to be available in special government facilities.
In a statement posted on the Truth Social app, a social media app founded by the former president in 2021, Trump announced that the FBI had broken into his safe, primarily focusing on obtaining the material he brought with him from the White House. In a separate post, Trump announced that his passports were also taken during the search.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the details of what was sought in the search were released to the public on Aug.12, after Attorney General Merrick Garland chose to unseal the warrant issued for the search. Although the court unsealed the warrant and receipt of items taken, many questions still remain about the seized materials, which include a handwritten note, a binder of photos and unspecified information about the President of France, Emmanual Macron.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the warrant allowed agents to search “the 45 Office” and “storage rooms” and all other rooms or areas within Mar-a-Lago where boxes could be stored. FBI agents were ordered to retrieve any boxes with government materials inside. They were also instructed to search for any communications regarding the retrieval or destruction of documents.
According to the laws referenced in the warrant, the Justice Department is concerned about a possible violation of the Espionage Act, which bans unauthorized retention of national security information that could potentially be harmful to the U.S. or their foreign allies. Under this act, it is a crime to withhold or destroy government documents or materials. The punishment and fines upon conviction are negotiated based on the amount of documents retained.
The Presidential Records Act of 1978 states that records are required to be given to the National Archives following a president’s departure of office.
While Trump has yet to be arrested or charged, the situation is unprecedented.
While the Presidential Records Act lacks any clear mechanism for enforcement for violating its procedures, the Espionage Act does carry criminal penalties and is a live possibility, especially because of the classified material involved.
“There is an interesting comparison point regarding the tension in this investigation,” Upper School Social Sciences Department Chair Dr. Ben Fulwider said. “Authorities must make sure public figures are held accountable to the law, while also trying to not create endless political disputes that divide and prevent our country from moving forward.”
While the search warrant was court-approved, Trump was furious with the investigation, calling it a “raid” and accusing the Department of Justice of a “witch hunt.”
The investigation may impact several other investigations regarding Trump’s activities, including a criminal inquiry in Georgia, as well as the hearings regarding the Jan. 6 attack on the capitol.
“From a political standpoint, this is part of a larger story of Trump’s post-presidency reputation and interest in running in 2024,” Dr. Fulwider said.
As of Aug.16, tensions continued to rise as Trump and his supporters, including his legal team and voters, sought to unseal the affidavit, which federal investigators used to justify the search warrant. The affidavit is a longer, more detailed document that prosecutors file to describe to the judge the justification for the warrant. While the warrant gives a general description of the items sought and the potential laws implicated, the affidavit provides detailed information about the investigation and of how the laws listed may have been violated.
Despite repeated requests from both Trump and several media companies to release the affidavit, the Department of Justice had been opposed to unsealing the document. Federal prosecutors were fearful that its contents could expose certain classified information, specifically sources and methods, that they did not want to be seen by the public.
Despite the Department of Justice’s opposition, the affidavit was released with heavy redactions on Aug. 26, revealing that the documents believed to be at Mar-a-Lago were not only extremely top secret but could also compromise human intelligence sources. According to the New York Times, the affidavit included over three dozen pages of evidence and arguments presented by the Department of Justice. Other contents released with the affidavit include the government’s source for the information on the documents: “a significant number of civilian witnesses.”
While much is still unknown about the details regarding the documents and search, there are a few things that are certain: Trump is, in all likelihood, in the process of being investigated for unlawful acts; these acts could potentially affect the other criminal inquiries in which he is involved; and, the affidavit confirms the suspicions of classified documents being stored at Mar-a-Lago.