Highly classified documents improperly stored, unlawfully concealed at Mar-a-Lago, affidavit says

Federal judge unseals affidavit of 'criminal investigation' into former President Donald Trump's Palm Beach property
Mar-a-Lago, Aug. 10, 2022
Posted at 8:58 AM, Aug 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-26 16:11:40-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A federal judge on Friday unsealed a heavily redacted probable cause affidavit connected to ahigh-profile search warrant that was executed at former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago property on Palm Beach earlier this month.

The Aug. 5 affidavit — which was filed three days before the search — said "the government is conducting a criminal investigation concerning the improper removal and storage of classified information in unauthorized spaces, as well as the unlawful concealment or removal of government records."

READ: Mar-a-lago search warrant affidavit

According to the 32-page affidavit, the FBI opened a criminal investigation after Trump's office on Jan. 18 turned in 15 boxes — which were taken from Mar-a-Lago — to the National Archives and Records Administration.

The boxes contained "highly classified documents intermingled with other records," and some of the classified documents included "National Defense Information."

A preliminary review of the boxes found they contained "newspapers, magazines, printed news articles, photos, miscellaneous print-outs, notes, presidential correspondence, personal and postpresidential records, and 'a lot of classified records.'"

Some of the highly classified records were "intermixed with other records."

In addition, the investigation found that 67 documents in the boxes were marked "confidential," 92 were marked "secret," and 25 were marked "top secret."

"Several of the documents also contained what appears to be [Trump's] handwritten notes," the affidavit said.

The FBI launched its investigation to determine how the classified documents were taken from the White House and ended up at Mar-a-Lago, whether the storage locations at Mar-a-Lago were authorized to house classified information, and whether any classified documents or records may still be at the property.

The affidavit said "there is also probable cause to believe that evidence of obstruction will be found at the PREMISES" and "probable cause exists to believe that evidence, contraband, fruits of crime, or other items illegally possessed... will be found at the PREMISES."

In the affidavit, a FBI special agent said "I do not believe that any spaces within [Mar-a-Lago] have been authorized for the storage of classified information at least since the end of [Trump's] Presidential Administration on January 20, 2021."

Former President Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate from an aerial view on Aug. 9, 2022.
Former President Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate from an aerial view on Aug. 9, 2022.

Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart initially said he would release the probable cause affidavit no later than 12 p.m. Friday, 24 hours after the Department of Justice's Thursday deadline to submit proposed redactions to the file.

The affidavit was eventually unsealed around 12:30 p.m. Friday.

Trump quickly responded to the affidavit's release on his Truth Social account with the following post:

Affidavit heavily redacted!!! Nothing mentioned on "Nuclear," a total public relations subterfuge by the FBI and DOJ, or our close working relationship regarding document turnover - WE GAVE THEM MUCH. Judge Bruce Reinhart should NEVER have allowed the Break-In of my home. He recused himself two months ago from one of my cases based on his animosity and hatred of your favorite President, me. What changed? Why hasn't he recused himself on this case? Obama must be very proud of him right now!

"That information has to be kept specifically in a secure location as set forth in certain regulations," said David Weinstein, a former assistant U.S. attorney in South Florida. "And by having these boxes just thrown in and kept in a room somewhere where, as you pointed out, guests could have found it, that was in violation of rules and government regulations how information should be kept."

Some information, it’s believed, could even contain the names of possible spies for the government.

The reasons for thinking there were more such documents at Mar-a-Lago and searching for them remains a secret. That entire section is blacked out.

Trump’s legal team has raised the defense that the former president had declassified the information before leaving office.

Overall, legal observers said the affidavit revealed a lot more than expected.

"I’m surprised because it's unusual for [the Department of Justice] to reveal anything during the early stages of an investigation," Weinstein said.

Reinhart said Thursday in a written order the government had met the burden of "showing good cause/a compelling interest that overrides any public interest in unsealing the full contents of the Affidavit."

In his order, Reinhardt said portions of the affidavit that will remain sealed include the identities of witnesses, law enforcement and uncharged parties, along with the investigation's strategy, direction, scope, or methods, as well as grand jury information.

Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart hears arguments on Aug. 18, 2022 in West Palm Beach federal court.jpg
Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart hears arguments on Aug. 18, 2022 in West Palm Beach federal court.

"The government is allowed to redact those things they can prove to the court a compelling interest in keeping secret," said media law attorney Deanna Shullman, who has represented WPTV in public records cases in the past. "So those are things like the identity of confidential informants, the identity of cooperating witnesses, the potential identities of other targets of the investigation that we may not yet be aware of, the sources and methods of the investigation, where the investigation is going or headed."

During an Aug. 18 hearing at the Paul G. Rogers Federal Building in downtown West Palm Beach, Reinhart said he would likely unseal parts of the probable cause affidavit.

Multiple media outlets, including WPTV's parent company, had requested that Reinhart unseal the document.

The Department of Justice, however, has been resistant to the release of the affidavit, saying that doing so could jeopardize any possible case and even future cases.

Mar-a-Lago FBI search warrant
Armed Secret Service agents stand outside an entrance to former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate, late Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, in Palm Beach, Fla. Trump said in a lengthy statement that the FBI was conducting a search of his Mar-a-Lago estate and asserted that agents had broken open a safe. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

In a recent filing, the government argued that "if disclosed, the affidavit would serve as a roadmap to the government's ongoing investigation" and that disclosure "would likely chill future cooperation by witnesses."

During the Aug. 18 hearing, Jay Bratt, an attorney for the Department of Justice, told Reinhart that releasing a redacted version of the affidavit is "not practical."

Bratt admitted there is heightened public interest in this case, but there are things in the document that can't be revealed. In addition, Bratt expressed concerns over the identities of federal agents and the impact on witnesses.

However, media attorney Charles Tobin argued for unsealing the affidavit, telling Reinhart there is a compelling public interest and "you cannot trust what you cannot see."

The Paul G. Rogers Federal Building in downtown West Palm Beach on Aug. 26, 2022.jpg
The Paul G. Rogers Federal Building in downtown West Palm Beach on Aug. 26, 2022.

Reinhart on Aug. 12 unsealed a list of items, including some documents labeled "top secret" and "highly classified," which were taken from Mar-a-Lago on Aug. 8 by federal agents.

Trump and other Republican lawmakers had called for the release of the unredacted probable cause affidavit related to the search of the former president's home.