Unsealed affidavit sheds new light on FBI case for Trump Mar-a-Lago search

Mar-a-Lago in 2019
Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in 2019.

A redacted version of the affidavit used to obtain a warrant for former President Donald Trump’s Florida residence shows that he was refusing to return sensitive documents.

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The FBI believed that additional classified documents would be found in a search of former President Donald Trump’s home at Mar-a-Lago, according to a heavily redacted affidavit made public Friday, noting in the more than 30-page document that “there is also probable cause to believe that evidence of obstruction will be found.”

Federal Magistrate Judge Bruce E. Reinhart ordered Thursday that the affidavit be publicly released with the Justice Department’s proposed redactions of anything that would identify individuals involved in the investigation, including witnesses cooperating with the FBI.

The redactions include “information from a broad range of civilian witnesses who may be subject to ‘witness intimidation or retaliation,’” according to a court filing explaining why the Justice Department wanted specific information redacted. The filing notes the department is trying to protect “a significant number” of civilian witnesses through redactions.

“Although the public is now aware that the government executed a search warrant at the premises owned by the former President and seized documents marked as classified, the affidavit is replete with further details that would provide a roadmap for anyone intent on obstructing the investigation,” the filing states.

The nature of the highly sensitive documents the government was working to get back from Trump could also remain secret, Reinhart said.

Despite extensive redactions, the affidavit presents a clearer picture of the chronology of the investigation and earlier efforts by the government to retrieve sensitive materials from Trump, as well as fresh details about the ongoing probe. Trump and his allies demanded the affidavit be released, but his legal team was not involved in the lawsuit by news organizations that triggered its release.

It is highly unusual for an affidavit, which lays out the probable cause that a crime was committed, to be released before charges are filed.

FBI agents removed 11 sets of of classified documents — including some marked top secret and meant to be available only in special government facilities — and 20 boxes of materials from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, during an Aug. 8 search. According to the search warrant, which U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland agreed to release along with an itemized list of the removed items, the department is investigating possible violations of three different laws: the Espionage Act, which outlaws the unauthorized retention of national security information that could harm the United States or aid a foreign adversary; a law that makes it a crime to destroy or conceal a document in order to obstruct a government investigation; and a statute associated with unlawful removal of government materials.

Under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, presidential records must be turned over to the National Archives when a president leaves office. The archives recovered more than 15 boxes of material that were improperly taken to Mar-a-Lago in January.

When asked to review the contents by the National Archives, the FBI “identified documents with classification markings in fourteen of the FIFTEEN BOXES. A preliminary triage of the documents with classification markings revealed the following approximate numbers: 184 unique documents bearing classification markings, including 67 documents marked as CONFIDENTIAL, 92 documents marked as SECRET, and 25 documents marked as TOP SECRET,” according to the affidavit.

The Justice Department spent the spring working with Trump’s lawyers to reclaim classified documents, including issuing a subpoena for the items.

The search warrant was executed when the Justice Department had reason to believe Trump and his team had not returned all highly sensitive documents to the government.

The Justice Department objected to releasing the affidavit, saying doing so could interfere with its investigation.

The FBI has reported a spike in threats against its agents after Republicans reacted to the search with heavy criticism ofthe agency, likening it to the Gestapo. In one instance, a gunman tried to breach an FBI field office in Cincinnati and was ultimately killed in a standoff with local police. Trump supporters have also protested at an FBI field office in Arizona.

Times staff writer Eli Stokols contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.