top of page

Espionage and Trump - part 1: The Search Warrant Bombshell

The Search Warrant Bombshell

It's been a wild week.

Everyone who thought Trump would sell us out to our enemies was right. It sucks to be right because that means we don't know how badly Trump fucked up our national security.

We are talking about nuclear weapon secrets.

Everything keeps coming with bigger and bigger hits to Trump it's hard to follow it all but the following should give you an idea of where we headed and it seems to be indicting Trump (and others) for some major felonies that entails DECADES behind bars.

Multiple sources familiar with the investigation say the Justice Department and the FBI believed former President Donald Trump continued to keep sensitive classified documents that had national security implications and that in recent weeks additional information came in suggesting that Trump was not complying with requests to provide the information the Justice Department believed he had in his possession.

The information was sensitive enough that authorities wanted to take it back into possession immediately.

Additional sources tell ABC News part of the information investigators were looking for included material labeled “special access” which is material accessible only by the highest level security clearances only available to a specific limited number of individuals.

Multiple sources tell ABC News federal investigators have questioned many individuals close to the former president about these materials including some members of his current staff in addition to some former White House officials.

Classified documents relating to nuclear weapons were among the items FBI agents sought in a search of former president Donald Trump’s Florida residence on Monday, according to people familiar with the investigation. Experts in classified information said the unusual search underscores deep concern among government officials about the types of information they thought could be located at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club and potentially in danger of falling into the wrong hands.

The people who described some of the material that agents were seeking spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation. They did not offer additional details about what type of information the agents were seeking, including whether it involved weapons belonging to the United States or some other nation. Nor did they say if such documents were recovered as part of the search. A Trump spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. The Justice Department and FBI declined to comment.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said Thursday that he could not discuss the investigation. But in an unusual public statement at the Justice Department, he announced he had personally authorized the decision to seek court permission for a search warrant.

Garland spoke moments after Justice Department lawyers filed a motion seeking to unseal the search warrant in the case, noting that Trump had publicly revealed the search shortly after it happened.

“The public’s clear and powerful interest in understanding what occurred under these circumstances weighs heavily in favor of unsealing,” the motion says. “That said, the former President should have an opportunity to respond to this Motion and lodge objections, including with regards to any ‘legitimate privacy interests’ or the potential for other ‘injury’ if these materials are made public.”

Late Thursday night, Trump said on social media that he agreed the document should be made public. In another post early Friday, he called the nuclear weapons issue a “hoax” and accused the FBI of planting evidence, without offering information to indicate such a thing had happened. Trump said agents did not allow his lawyers to be present for the search, which is not unusual in a law enforcement operation, especially if it potentially involves classified items.

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that the list of items seized by FBI agents during the search included 11 sets of classified documents; four were marked top-secret, three were secret and three were identified as confidential — the lowest level of classified information. The Journal reported that the inventory of what was taken also referred to a set of documents marked “Various classified/TS/SCI documents,” a government label for a more closely held form of top secret information.

Material about nuclear weapons is especially sensitive and usually restricted to a small number of government officials, experts said. Publicizing details about U.S. weapons could provide an intelligence road map to adversaries seeking to build ways of countering those systems. And other countries might view exposing their nuclear secrets as a threat, experts said.

One former Justice Department official, who in the past oversaw investigations of leaks of classified information, said the type of top-secret information described by the people familiar with the probe would probably cause authorities to try to move as quickly as possible to recover sensitive documents that could cause grave harm to U.S. security.

“If that is true, it would suggest that material residing unlawfully at Mar-a-Lago may have been classified at the highest classification level,” said David Laufman, the former chief of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence section, which investigates leaks of classified information. “If the FBI and the Department of Justice believed there were top secret materials still at Mar-a-Lago, that would lend itself to greater ‘hair-on-fire’ motivation to recover that material as quickly as possible.”

The Monday search of Trump’s home by FBI agents has caused a political furor, with Trump and many of his Republican defenders accusing the FBI of acting out of politically motivated malice. Some have threatened the agency on social media.

As Garland spoke Thursday, police in Ohio were engaged in a standoff with an armed man who allegedly tried to storm the Cincinnati office of the FBI. The man was killed by police later that day; authorities said negotiations had failed.

Newly unsealed search warrants related to the FBI’s Monday raid at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida show the former president is being investigated by the Department of Justice for potential violations of the Espionage Act, mishandling government documents, and obstruction of justice.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said Thursday that federal prosecutors had filed a motion in the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida to request the search warrant and an FBI property receipt listing the items taken from the estate be unsealed for the public. Trump, who first announced the FBI search in a statement on Monday night, subsequently said he had no objection to their release.

The documents, which began being published by several media outlets prior to their unsealing by the court, reveal new details about the extraordinary investigation into the former president, who is suspected of having improperly taken documents and souvenirs with him when he vacated the White House.

Per the search warrant, Trump is under investigation for gathering, transmitting, or losing defense information (an Espionage Act violation); concealment, removal, or mutilation generally of government documents; and destruction, alteration, or falsification of records in federal investigations. Violations of these statutes can lead to imprisonment and fines.

Per the unsealed FBI receipt, the contents of which were first reported by the Wall Street Journal, agents removed 11 sets of classified documents from Mar-a-Lago, including some marked with the highest level of government classification. Other items seized included photos, the executive clemency grant to Trump ally Roger Stone, and a document with information on French President Emmanuel Macron.

The Washington Post reported Thursday night that classified documents relating to nuclear weapons were among the items being searched for by the FBI agents.

The documents show agents intended to search the former president’s office and storage rooms, but not any private guest suites at the 17-acre club, which has 58 bedrooms and 33 bathrooms.

In a series of blustering statements on Friday, the former president, who campaigned for the White House by calling for rival Hillary Clinton to be locked up for her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, attempted to cast the investigation into his actions as being politically motivated.

The New York Times reported on Thursday that the DOJ had sent Trump a subpoena to hand over the documents at issue and then subsequently asked a federal judge to approve a search warrant when he failed to do so.

Despite this, Trump said investigators could have requested the documents, which he said were securely stored at his palatial Florida compound.

“They could have had it anytime they wanted without playing politics and breaking into Mar-a-Lago,” Trump said in a statement. “It was in secured storage, with an additional lock put on as per their request. They could have had it anytime they wanted—and that includes LONG ago. ALL THEY HAD TO DO WAS ASK.”

He also sought to shift attention to former president Barack Obama — whom Trump referred to in a statement using his middle name, Hussein, in an apparent attempt to stoke the racist and anti-Muslim rhetoric that spurred his national political emergence — by accusing him of taking millions of pages of classified documents when he left office.

“How many of them pertained to nuclear?” Trump said. “Word is, lots!”

In response, the National Archives and Records Administration released a statement stating that it had moved approximately 30 million pages of unclassified records to its facilities in Chicago and Washington, DC, where Obama has no control over where and how they are stored or managed.

Trump has also attempted to argue that he himself declassified the documents he took with him when he was president, but there is a formal federal process for doing so.

Allies of the former president, who has teased another run for the White House in 2024, have suggested without evidence that the Biden administration is orchestrating the investigations. Representatives for Biden have said he has been unaware of the probe, which is being handled independently by the attorney general and his staff, as is custom.

Garland said Thursday that he personally approved the decision to request a search warrant and defended the investigation’s integrity. “Upholding the rule of law means applying the law evenly without fear or favor,” Garland said. “Under my watch, that is precisely what the Justice Department is doing."

Apparently undeterred by the fallout from false claims of election fraud that compelled his supporters to attack the US Capitol, Trump and his allies have again used apocalyptic rhetoric to describe the legal storm that has enveloped him.

A campaign fundraising email to supporters on Friday from Donald Trump Jr. warned that the “nation is on the line.”

“Biden and the Democrats are following in the footsteps of all the 3rd world Communist Dictators that the Left worships,” Trump Jr. wrote. “Their out-of-control Department of Justice is ripping this Country apart with how they're openly targeting their political enemies.”

That statement came a day after a Trump supporter attacked an FBI building in Cincinnati before being shot dead by authorities. The man, Ricky Shiffer, had participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection and had written on Trump’s Truth Social website that he intended to avenge the former president.

"Well, I thought I had a way through bullet proof glass, and I didn't," Shiffer posted on the website while he was in a standoff with authorities on Friday. "If you don't hear from me, it is true I tried attacking the F.B.I., and it'll mean either I was taken off the internet, the F.B.I. got me, or they sent the regular cops while."

Washington (CNN)The federal criminal investigation into former President Donald Trump's potential mishandling of classified documents ramped up this week in significant and unprecedented fashion, with the FBI executing a search warrant at Trump's home at his Mar-a-Lago resort.

The Justice Department inquiry is about documents that Trump removed from the White House as his term was ending in January 2021. Earlier this year, officials from the National Archives and Records Administration, known as NARA, recovered 15 boxes of presidential documents from Mar-a-Lago.

Trump's lawyers previously worked with NARA to voluntarily turn over some documents, but the Mar-a-Lago search clearly indicates a new phase of the probe. Trump has denied all wrongdoing and claims the investigation is a politically motivated sham, intended to derail his potential bid to return to the White House.

Here's a timeline of the key moments from the blockbuster investigation.

May 2021

An official from NARA contacts Trump's team after realizing that several important documents weren't handed over before Trump left the White House. In hopes of locating the missing items, NARA lawyer Gary Stern reaches out to someone who served in the White House counsel's office under Trump, who was the point of contact for recordkeeping matters. The missing documents include some of Trump's correspondence with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as well as the map of Hurricane Dorian that Trump infamously altered with a sharpie pen.

Fall 2021 NARA grows frustrated with the slow pace of document turnover after several months of conversations with the Trump team. Stern reaches out to another Trump attorney to intervene. The archivist asks about several boxes of records that were apparently taken to Mar-a-Lago during Trump's relocation to Florida. NARA still doesn't receive the White House documents they are searching for.

January 2022 After months of discussions with Trump's team, NARA retrieves 15 boxes of Trump White House records from Mar-a-Lago. NARA says in a statement that some of the records it received at the end of Trump's administration were "torn up by former President Trump," and that White House officials had to tape them back together. Not all the torn-up documents were reconstructed, NARA says. The boxes contained some materials that were part of "special access programs," known as SAP, which is a classification that includes protocols to significantly limit who would have access to the information.

February 9, 2022 News outlets, including CNN, report that NARA asked the Justice Department to investigate Trump's handling of White House records and whether he violated the Presidential Records Act and other laws related to classified information. The Presidential Records Act requires all records created by a sitting president to be turned over to the National Archives at the end of their administration.

February 18, 2022 NARA informs the Justice Department that some of the documents retrieved from Mar-a-Lago included classified material. NARA also tells the department that, despite being warned it was illegal, Trump tore up documents while he was president, and that senior officials in the Trump administration did not properly preserve their social media messages, draft tweets and deleted tweets.

April and May 2022 On April 7, NARA publicly acknowledges for the first time that the Justice Department is involved, and news outlets report that prosecutors have launched a criminal probe into Trump's mishandling of classified documents. Around this time, FBI agents quietly interview Trump aides at Mar-a-Lago about the handling of presidential records as part of their widening investigation.

May 12, 2022 News outlets report that investigators subpoenaed NARA for access to the classified documents retrieved from Mar-a-Lago. The subpoena, which is part of the process to allow investigators to take possession of the documents from the NARA, is the first public indication of the Justice Department using a grand jury in its investigation.

June 3, 2022 Four investigators, including a top Justice Department counterintelligence official, visit Mar-a-Lago seeking more information about classified material that had been taken to Florida. The four investigators meet with Trump's attorneys and look around the basement room where the documents are being stored. Trump briefly stops by the meeting to say hello to the officials, but he does not answer any questions. During the meeting, the federal officials serve a grand jury subpoena for some of the sensitive national security documents on the premises, and they take away the subpoenaed documents.

June 8, 2022 Trump's attorneys receive a letter from federal investigators, asking them to further secure the room where documents are being stored. In response, Trump aides add a padlock to the room in the basement of Mar-a-Lago.

June 22, 2022 Federal investigators serve a subpoena to the Trump Organization, demanding surveillance video from Mar-a-Lago. Trump's company complies with the subpoena and turns over the footage. CNN has reported that this was part of an effort to gather information about who had access to areas at the club where government documents were stored. The subpoena was served on June 22, according to The Wall Street Journal.

August 8, 2022 The FBI executes a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago -- a major escalation of the classified documents investigation. The search focused on the area of the club where Trump's offices and personal quarters are located. Federal agents remove boxes of material from the property. The search was the first time in American history that a former president's home was searched as part of a criminal investigation.

August 11, 2022 After three days of silence, Attorney General Merrick Garland makes a brief public statement about the investigation. He reveals that he personally approved the decision to seek a search warrant, and pushes back against what he called "unfounded attacks on the professionalism of the FBI and Justice Department." Garland also announces that the Justice Department will ask a judge to unseal some of the search warrant documents, for the sake of transparency. Trump says in a late-night post on his Truth Social platform that he will "not oppose the release of documents" related to the search.

August 12, 2022 Federal Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart approves the unsealing of the Mar-a-Lago search warrant and its property receipt, at the Justice Department's request and after Trump's lawyers agree to the release. The warrant reveals the Justice Department is looking into possible violations of the Espionage Act, obstruction of justice and criminal handling of government records, as part of its its investigation.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

Some of the presidential records recovered from former president Donald Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago are so sensitive they may not be able to be described in forthcoming inventory reports in an unclassified way, two people familiar with the matter said Friday.

The revelation comes as Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) sent the National Archives and Records Administration a request for further information on 15 boxes of records recovered from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort last month. The Archives set Friday as its deadline for an inventory of the contents.

The Archives has publicly confirmed earlier reporting by The Washington Post that classified materials were found within the boxes and that torn-up records had been transferred to the Archives but not reconstructed by the Trump White House.

The inventory is expected to provide more information on the volume and scope of classified documents, including details on the level of classification, according to the two people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic. There are records at the very highest levels of classification, including some that can be viewed by only a small number of government officials, the two people said.

“There are records that only a very few have clearances” to review, one of the people told The Post. The documents are so sensitive that they may not be able to describe them in an unclassified way, and, therefore, such documents might be described broadly in a classified addendum to the inventory, according to the two people.

The executive branch’s system of classification is among the weirdest aspects of the American government, and sometimes it seems as if those best equipped to understand it are people with a background in obscure religious practices—say, Roman Catholic sacramental theology—rather than journalists or lawyers. Certain officials are consecrated as having “original classification authority” (they can baptize documents as classified without reference to previous classification); some are ordained to classify but derive their authority from others. You can be defrocked for various reasons. But the authority to classify and declassify flows from one person with near-absolute power, and for four years that papal figure was Donald J. Trump. This awesome former power will protect him from prosecution, but only so much.

Attorney General Merrick Garland revealed yesterday that the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago concerned the existence of classified material at Trump’s Florida golf resort. And The Washington Post reported that the material included “documents relating to nuclear weapons,” which would seem to surpass in gravity the pilfering of presidential memorabilia that many speculated was the reason for the raid. If Trump took away a postcard from Kim Jong Un, well, tsk-tsk. Political prudence might dictate that Garland not prosecute the case.

Moreover, so much material is classified that one should expect a slipup here and there. For decades, the crusade against overclassification has been a cause mostly of the left, in part on the grounds that so much is secret that no one, let alone Trump, could be expected to abide by all classification rules. Secrets are not rare. By some measures there might be more information that is classified by the U.S. government than is unclassified, in any library, anywhere. In 2004, the physicist Peter Galison tallied the amount of classified material produced every year and found that “about five times as many pages are being added to the classified universe than are being brought to the storehouses of human learning, including all the books and journals on any subject in any language collected in the largest repositories on the planet.” The government certainly has more classified data than exists unclassified in the entire Library of Congress. Mistakes will be made, especially by officials who are flagrantly heedless of basic procedure.

But fan letters and snapshots are one matter, and launch codes are another—and here the details of classification might decide just how much trouble Trump is in. First, let’s focus on the absolute portion of near-absolute power. The 1988 Supreme Court case Navy v. Egan confirmed that classification authority flows from the president except in specific instances separated from his powers by law. And here is where things get theological: A president can make most documents classified or declassified simply by willing them so. This peculiar power is so great that the government has an office that exists solely to manage it: the Information Security Oversight Office, which has a strong claim to being the coolest government office you’ve never heard of. (The longest-serving director of this office, Steven Garfinkel, told me that for two decades he had access to pretty much every secret in the executive branch. “If there was a version of the game show Jeopardy entirely about the federal government,” he deadpanned to me once, “I would be in the Tournament of Champions every single year.” Garfinkel retired to teach high school in 2002 and died in 2018.)

His successor, J. William Leonard, led the office under George W. Bush, and he confirmed the lack of general limitation of his boss’s power. While a president is president, Leonard told me, “the rules and procedures governing the classification and declassification of information apply to everyone else.” And that means Trump could have declassified whatever he wished (again, with specific limitations soon to be discussed) before carting it off to Mar-a-Lago. He would not have had to file paperwork—just “utter the magic words,” Leonard told me. He could have waved his hand over the U-Haul trailer as it headed out the White House driveway and down I-95 toward Florida, and there would have been no classified material in there to mishandle.

Leonard noted important caveats, however. First, Trump’s power to declassify ended with his presidency. Second, that U-Haul could be reclassified by someone else. (Depending on traffic and the sharpness of the Biden administration, I would imagine it could have been reclassified somewhere around Fredericksburg, Virginia.) And third, there are certain materials that presidents cannot classify and declassify at will. One such category of material is the identity of spies.

Another is nuclear secrets. The Atomic Energy Acts of 1946 and 1954 produced an even stranger category of classified knowledge. Anything related to the production or use of nuclear weapons and nuclear power is inherently classified, and Trump could utter whatever words he pleased yet still be in possession of classified material. Where are our nuclear warheads? What tricks have we developed to make sure they work? This information is “born secret” no matter who produces it. The restrictions on documents of this type are incredibly tight. In the unlikely event that Trump came up with a new way to enrich uranium, and scribbled it on a cocktail napkin poolside at Mar-a-Lago early this year, that napkin would instantly have become a classified document subject to various controls and procedures, and possibly illegal for the former president to possess. Of course if he did so, no prosecutor would pursue him. A certain amount of leeway is crucial to the system.

If Trump was keeping nuclear secrets in the storeroom of his country club, without even the benefit of a padlock, and resisted attempts to secure those secrets against infiltrators and spies, a prosecutor might reasonably take more interest. After all, he’s the ex-president, not the pope.

THREAD. Whatever POTUS’ “powers” might be to declassify docs, there are good policy and practical reasons for them to follow a process, and for that process to be documented and reflected on the document markings themselves

2. The first one is accountability, which is indispensable in a democracy. To declassify a doc is to make a judgment call about its danger to our nat sec, and the person making that call needs to explain that rationale – so that those whom it affects, including public, know why

3. Having a documented basis not only allows for objections from others if the reasoning is based on an incorrect premise (and will harm nat sec), it also allows people to see if there are specious or suspicious reasons why someone is taking these steps or overriding objections

4. But there are also practical reasons. If someone is declassifying info that impacts sources and methods, it offers time to protect them or prepare for blowback. Remember when Trump declassified Russia docs? The CIA/our allies had to take steps to protect sources in advance

5. Imagine the implications of not following this. Say POTUS, an OCA, secretly and unilaterally declassifies SIGINT, for example. He’s hanging out at MAL and showing it to God knows who. Meanwhile our IC, or maybe those of our allies, sees sources suddenly dropping like flies…

6. I mean, apart from being dangerous and bad for nat sec, it is chaos inducing, result in confusion and inefficiency and distortions in our intelligence collection, foreign policy, and defense efforts. It makes us WEAKER and less able to know what our secrets really are

7. It’s also dumb. OK, so Trump telepathically declassifies hundreds of docs on his way out. Then guess what? Biden can telepathically reclassify them immediately, too. See how stupid this gets? Markings would mean nothing. No one would know how to store things. It’s idiotic

8. But all of these practical second- and third- order effects really are less important than tweet #2: What was the rationale?What could POSSIBLY be the justification for declassifying our nation’s highest defense secrets?Sensitive foreign intelligence? Without notifying anyone?


Recent Posts

See All

REMINDER: May meeting is tonight!

We will discuss the May election results, Trump trial, and general election updates. Our May meeting for Calhoun County Democratic Club will be held Tuesday, May 7, 2024 at the Calhoun County Library,

Some articles to read

Articles to read that I found while digging up the Trump Trial stuff. Local: TxDot seeks comments for rural transportation projects

Trump Trial Week 4

A Masterlist to track to the trial.


bottom of page