June 4, 2023

A newly released FBI document helps flesh out the outlines of an investigation into classified material from former President Donald Trump’s Florida estate. But plenty of questions remain, not least because half of the affidavit stating the FBI’s reasons for searching the property was blacked out.

The document, filed by the FBI to obtain a warrant for a search of Trump’s winter residence, provides new details about the number and top-secret nature of items retrieved from Mar-a-Lago in January. It shows concerns raised by Justice Department officials months before the search that secretly held government secrets were being stored illegally, and after they returned with a court-approved search warrant in August and found more secrets at the property before recording.

This all raises the question of whether a crime was committed, and if so, by whom. Answers may not come soon.

A department official this month described the investigation as in its early stages, a sign that more work needs to be done as investigators review the documents they deleted and continue to interview witnesses. At the very least, the investigation would create a political distraction for Trump as he lays the groundwork for a potential presidential bid.

Then there are the obvious legal risks.

See what happens next:

What is the FBI investigating?

None of the legal documents released by the administration so far have named Trump — or anyone else — as a potential target of the investigation. But the search warrant and accompanying affidavit made it clear that the investigation was active and criminal.

The department is investigating possible violations of several laws, including an Espionage Act regulation on the collection, transmission or loss of defense information. Other laws deal with the mutilation and deletion of records and the destruction, alteration, or falsification of records in federal investigations.

The investigation began quietly with a referral from the National Archives and Records Administration, which retrieved 15 boxes of records from Mar-a-Lago in January, 14 of which were found to contain classified information. All told, officials found 184 classified-marked documents, some of which indicated they contained information from highly sensitive human sources, the FBI affidavit said. Several people appeared to have handwritten notes from Trump, the affidavit said.

The FBI has spent months investigating how the documents got into Mar-a-Lago from the White House and whether other classified records existed on the property. The bureau also sought to identify “persons who may have deleted or retained confidential information without authorization and/or in unauthorized spaces,” the affidavit said.

So far, the FBI has interviewed “a large number of civilian witnesses” and is seeking “additional information” from them, according to a Justice Department briefing released Friday. The FBI has yet to identify all “potential criminal associates nor find all evidence relevant to its investigation.”


Will anyone be charged?

Hard to say at this point. To obtain a search warrant, federal agents must convince a judge that there is probable reason to believe that there is evidence of a crime in the location they want to search.

But search warrants are not an automatic precursor to criminal prosecution, and they certainly don’t signal that charges are imminent.

The law at issue is a felony punishable by imprisonment.

In recent years, a law involving the mishandling of defense information has been used to prosecute a government contractor who kept a large number of sensitive records in his Maryland home (he was sentenced to nine years in prison) and an NSA employee for transferring classified information Transmission to persons not authorized to receive information (case pending).

Attorney General Merrick Garland did not reveal his views on the matter. Asked last month about Trump in the context of a separate investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riots, he responded that “no one is above the law.”


What is Trump arguing about?

Trump, outraged by the record investigation, issued a statement Friday saying he and his team had cooperated with the Justice Department and that his representatives had “give them a lot.”

That does not match the description of the Trump team in the affidavit and the fact that the FBI issued a warning months ago that the documents were not being properly stored and that there was no safe place to search Mar-a-Lago.

A letter made public as part of the affidavit predicts the arguments Trump’s legal team intends to make as the investigation proceeds. In a May 25 letter to Jay Bratt, head of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence division, attorney M. Evan Corcoran expressed a strong, broad view of executive power.

Corcoran asserted that it is a “fundamental principle” that the president has the absolute power to declassify documents — though he doesn’t actually say Trump has done so. He also said major laws governing mishandling of classified information do not apply to the president.

The statute he cited in his letter was not among the statutes that the affidavit indicated the Justice Department was investigating. In a footnote to the affidavit, FBI agents observed that the law on defense information did not use the term classified information.


What did the Biden administration say?

The White House has been very cautious about the investigation, and officials have repeatedly said they will let the Justice Department get the job done.

National security spokesman John Kirby responded this week to a question about whether the government would conduct a damage assessment of the sensitive secrets of Mar-a-Lago that he did not want to get ahead of the FBI.

President Joe Biden appeared to mock on Friday the idea that Trump could have simply declassified all the documents he had, telling reporters, “I just want you to know that I have declassified everything in the world. I am what I can do. President – come on!”

He then said he would “let the Department of Justice handle it”.


Follow Eric Tucker on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/etcuckerAP


Learn more about Donald Trump-related investigations: https://apnews.com/hub/donald-trump

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