US Justice Dept says Trump papers included material on intelligence, sources

FBI reviews and identifies 184 documents containing 'national defence information'

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The affidavit by the FBI in support of obtaining a search warrant for former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate. –AP
The affidavit by the FBI in support of obtaining a search warrant for former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate. –AP

By Reuters

Published: Sat 27 Aug 2022, 12:00 AM

The US Department of Justice on Friday said it was investigating former President Donald Trump for removing White House records because it believed he had illegally retained documents, including some pertaining to government intelligence-gathering and sources - among the country's most closely-held secrets.

The heavily redacted affidavit about government documents at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate that was released on Friday contained some new details, though it did not unveil any major revelations.

Nevertheless, the affidavit could help explain why the Justice Department sought court approval for an Aug. 8 search at the Florida resort.

The FBI search marked a significant escalation in one of the many federal and state investigations Trump is facing from his time in office and in private business.

The Republican former president has suggested he might run for the White House again. He has described the search as politically motivated, and on Friday, he again described the court-approved search as a "break-in."

The FBI action was part of a federal probe into whether Trump illegally removed documents when he left office in January 2021 after losing the presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden, and whether he tried to obstruct the government's investigation.

According to the document released on Friday, an unidentified FBI agent said the FBI had reviewed and identified 184 documents "bearing classification markings" containing "national defence information," after Trump in January returned 15 boxes of government records to the US National Archives.

The agent who drafted the affidavit said that after the FBI had reviewed the initial batch of records, it believed there was probable cause to believe more documents were still inside Mar-a-Lago.

"There is also probable cause to believe that evidence of obstruction will be found at the premises," the agent added.

The Justice Department also said on Friday in a separate batch of unsealed records that it has "a significant number of civilian witnesses" who are helping with its investigation, a rare disclosure for an probe in such early stages.

Like much of the 32-page affidavit, many pages in those other unsealed records were also redacted.

Trump reaction

Trump on Friday complained on social media that the affidavit was "heavily redacted," and he demanded that the judge in the case recuse himself without giving any apparent basis - a request that Trump's legal team has not formally made with the court.

"Judge Bruce Reinhart should NEVER have allowed the Break-In of my home," Trump wrote.

The records unsealed on Friday also showed how Trump's attorneys tried to convince the Justice Department not to pursue a criminal investigation, arguing Trump had the authority to declassify documents.

In one section, it references an article published in May by former Trump administration official Kash Patel, who claimed media reports about the National Archives identifying classified material at Mar-a-Lago were "misleading."

Brandon Fox, a former federal prosecutor now with Jenner and Block, said he believes the references to Trump's claims about declassifying the documents are significant, even though much of the material is redacted.

"They likely indicate the proof the DOJ believes it has showing that Mr. Trump had not declassified the documents," he told Reuters.

The newly released records also showed how Trump's attorneys sought to downplay the Justice Department's concerns about the records.

"Any attempt to impose criminal liability on a President or former President that involves his actions with respect to documents marked classified would implicate grave constitutional separation-of-powers issues," Trump's attorney Evan Corcoran wrote in a May 25 letter to the Justice Department's head of counterintelligence.

"Beyond that, the primary criminal statute that governs the unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents or material does not apply to the President," he added.

The FBI agent said a preliminary review of the records the Archives received in the 15 boxes, which was conducted between May 16-18, found 184 "unique documents" labeled as classified. Of those, 67 were marked "confidential" while 92 were marked as "secret" and 25 marked as "top secret."

Other defence-related records, meanwhile, contained references to things such as confidential sources that help the United States with its intelligence-gathering, as well as details on how the U.S. conducts foreign surveillance and information it collected using the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act - the law that established the country's domestic surveillance program.

The agent added that there was probable cause to search a number of rooms inside Mar-a-Lago, including a storage room and Trump's residential suit as well as "Pine Hall" and the "45 Office."

Democratic Senator Mark Warner, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Friday's documents underscore the need for the panel to receive a bipartisan "damage assessment of any national security threat posed by the mishandling" of the information. (Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; additional reporting by Jacqueline Thomsen, Mike Scarcella, Karen Freifeld Richard Cowan, and Moira Warburton; Editing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell)

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