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FBI found 184 classified documents in boxes returned by Trump, redacted affidavit says, prompting search

The affidavit used to justify the Aug. 8 search at Mar-a-Lago says that the FBI found 25 documents marked “top secret” among 15 boxes Trump gave back to the National Archives earlier this year.

WASHINGTON — A redacted copy of the FBI affidavit used to justify the Aug. 8 search of former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate was unsealed Friday, revealing details of the federal government's efforts to recover classified documents, including top-secret information.

The 36-page affidavit, much of which was heavily redacted, said that in mid-May, FBI agents conducted a preliminary review of the contents of 15 boxes Trump returned to the National Archives from his Florida property in January, and "identified documents with classification markings in fourteen of the FIFTEEN BOXES."

The affidavit said that agents found 184 unique documents that had classification markings. It stated that 25 documents were marked as "TOP SECRET," 67 documents marked as "confidential" and 92 marked "secret." According to the affidavit, agents observed markings denoting various control systems designed to protect various types of sensitive information, including markings that designate intelligence gathered by "clandestine human sources," such as a report by a CIA officer or someone who works for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

The release of the FBI affidavit came after U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart ruled Thursday that the document could be unsealed after the Department of Justice submitted proposed redactions.

Reinhart approved the warrant that allowed federal agents to search Trump’s Florida property Aug. 8 after determining that the affidavit provided probable cause. He reiterated earlier this week that he found “probable cause that evidence of multiple federal crimes would be found” at Mar-a-Lago and that he “was — and am — satisfied that the facts sworn by the affiant are reliable.”

The affidavit contains substantial redactions in its section on providing probable cause for the August search, which is about 20 pages. One almost completely blacked-out section is titled, “There is Probable Cause to Believe That Documents Containing Classified [National Defense Information] and Presidential Records Remain at the Premises.”

Ultimately, FBI agents removed 11 additional sets of classified documents, including some labeled secret and top secret, during the Aug. 8 search, according to the property receipt of items that were recovered. There were also papers described as “SCI” documents, which stands for highly classified “sensitive compartmented information.”

The Justice Department had argued against releasing the affidavit. The document itself says that any “premature disclosure” of the affidavit and other related documents could "have a significant and negative impact on the continuing investigation and may severely jeopardize its effectiveness by allowing criminal parties an opportunity to flee, destroy evidence (stored electronically and otherwise), change patterns of behavior, and notify criminal confederates.”

The affidavit noted that based on the federal investigation, the government believed that the storage room where boxes of presidential records were kept at Mar-a-Lago, as well as Trump's suite, his office and other spaces "within the premises are not currently authorized locations for the storage of classified information."

Pages from the Mar-a-Lago search warrant affidavit by the FBI
Pages from the affidavit by the FBI in support of obtaining a search warrant for former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate.Jon Elswick / AP

In June, Justice Department lawyers sent Trump's attorneys a letter that reiterated that Mar-a-Lago couldn't be used to store classified information, according to the affidavit. The Justice Department asked in the letter that the room where the documents were stored "be secured and that all of the boxes that were moved from the White House to Mar-a-Lago (along with any other items in that room) be preserved in that room in their current condition until further notice."

The government concluded in the affidavit that "probable cause exists to believe that evidence, contraband, fruits of crime, or other items illegally possessed in violation" of U.S. law will be found on the grounds of the property.

Attached to the affidavit is a May 25 letter from Trump lawyer Evan Corcoran to Jay Bratt, chief of the Counterintelligence and Export Control Section in the Justice Department’s National Security Division.

Corcoran characterized the interactions with the National Archives as "friendly, open, and straightforward," and called the transfer of presidential records — as required by the law — as "voluntary and open."

He tried to argue that presidential actions involving classified documents are not subject to criminal sanctions, because Trump was not "an officer, employee, contractor, or consultant of the United States."

In a separate 13-page filing Friday, the Justice Department reiterated its case for redacting parts of the affidavit, including “to protect the safety and privacy of a significant number of civilian witnesses in addition to law enforcement.”

"If witnesses’ identities are exposed, they could be subjected to harms including retaliation, intimidation, or harassment, and even threats to their physical safety," the government wrote, noting recent threats to law enforcement following the Mar-a-Lago search.

Mar-a-Lago
Police stand outside an entrance to former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate on Aug. 8, 2022, in Palm Beach, Fla.Wilfredo Lee / AP

The Justice Department also argued that revealing certain information could "severely disadvantage the government as it seeks further information from witnesses." And it said the government has "well-founded concerns that steps may be taken to frustrate or otherwise interfere with this investigation if facts in the affidavit were prematurely disclosed."

In a court filing Friday night, Trump's legal team argued that the redacted affidavit "provides almost no information that would allow [Trump] to understand why the raid took place, or what was taken from his home. The few lines that are unredacted raise more questions than answers."

That filing was a supplemental motion to a request earlier this week in which Trump asked for a court-appointed special master to oversee the handling of materials seized from Mar-a-Lago. His attorneys argued Friday that the appointment of a special master would have “no effect” on the search warrant case currently before Reinhart “which has largely concluded with today’s release of a heavily redacted affidavit.”

Reinhart, in his order Thursday, said that the Justice Department had shown sufficient cause to redact portions of the affidavit, agreeing that releasing the document in whole would reveal the identities of witnesses, law enforcement and “uncharged parties,” as well as the scope and methods of the investigation. The Justice Department had also shown that its redactions were “narrowly tailored,” he wrote.

The Presidential Records Act mandates that all presidential records be properly preserved by each administration so that a complete set is transferred to the National Archives at the end of an administration.

Trump also received a federal grand jury subpoena in the spring for sensitive documents the government believed he retained after his departure from the White House, NBC News previously reported. A source who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the subpoena was related to documents that Trump’s legal team discussed with Justice Department officials at a meeting in early June.