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Trump Search: What May Come Next In Inquiry With Legal Peril

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A newly released FBI document helps flesh out the contours of an investigation into classified material at former President Donald Trump’s Florida estate. But loads of questions remain, especially because half the affidavit, which spelled out the FBI’s rationale for searching the property, was blacked out.

That document, which the FBI submitted so it could get a warrant to look Trump’s winter home, provides latest details concerning the volume and top secret nature of what was retrieved from Mar-a-Lago in January. It shows how Justice Department officials had raised concerns months before the search that closely held government secrets were being illegally stored — after which returned in August with a court-approved warrant and positioned much more classified records on the property.

All of it raises questions whether a criminal offense was committed and, in that case, by whom. Answers may not come quickly.

A department official this month described the investigation as in its early stages, suggesting more work is ahead as investigators review the documents they removed and proceed interviewing witnesses. Intelligence officials will concurrently conduct an assessment of any risk to national security potentially created by the documents being disclosed.

At a minimum, the investigation presents a political distraction for Trump as he lays the groundwork for a possible presidential run.

Then there’s the plain legal peril.

WHAT IS THE FBI INVESTIGATING?

None of the federal government’s legal filings released thus far singles out Trump — or anyone else — as a possible goal of the investigation. However the warrant and accompanying affidavit clarify the investigation is energetic and criminal in nature.

The department is investigating potential violations of multiple laws, including an Espionage Act statute that governs gathering, transmitting or losing national defense information. The opposite laws cope with the mutilation and removal of records in addition to the destruction, alteration or falsification of records in federal investigations.

The inquiry began quietly with a referral from the National Archives and Records Administration, which retrieved 15 boxes of records from Mar-a-Lago in January — 14 of which were found to contain classified information. All told, the FBI affidavit said, officials found 184 documents bearing classification markings, including some suggesting they contained information from highly sensitive human sources. Several had what gave the impression to be Trump’s handwritten notes, the affidavit says.

The FBI has spent months investigating how the documents made their way from the White House to Mar-a-Lago and whether every other classified records might exist on the property. The bureau also has tried to discover the person or people “who can have removed or retained classified information without authorization and/or in an unauthorized space,” the affidavit states.

Thus far the FBI has interviewed a “significant variety of civilian witnesses,” based on a Justice Department transient unsealed Friday, and is looking for “further information” from them. The FBI has not identified all “potential criminal confederates nor positioned all evidence related to its investigation.”

It’s hard to say at this point. To get a search warrant, federal agents must persuade a judge that probable cause exists to consider there’s evidence of a criminal offense at the situation they need to look.

But search warrants aren’t automatic precursors to a criminal prosecution and so they actually don’t signal that charges are imminent.

Even so, the laws at issue are felonies that carry prison sentences.

One law, involving the mishandling of national defense information, has been used in recent times within the prosecution of a government contractor who stowed reams of sensitive records at his Maryland home (he was sentenced to nine years in prison) and a National Security Agency worker accused of transmitting classified information to someone who was not authorized to receive it (the case is pending).

Attorney General Merrick Garland hasn’t revealed his pondering. Asked last month about Trump within the context of a separate investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021, riot on the Capitol, he responded that “nobody is above the law.”

Trump, irate over the records investigation, issued an announcement Friday saying that he and his team have cooperated with the Justice Department and that his representatives “GAVE THEM MUCH.”

That’s at odds with the portrayal of the Trump team within the affidavit and the indisputable fact that the FBI search occurred despite warnings months earlier that the documents weren’t being properly stored and that there was no secure location for them anywhere in Mar-a-Lago.

A letter made public as a part of the affidavit forecasts the arguments the Trump legal team intends to advance because the investigation proceeds. The May 25 letter from lawyer M. Evan Corcoran to Jay Bratt, the pinnacle of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence section, articulates a sturdy, expansive view of executive power.

Corcoran asserted that it was a “bedrock principle” that a president has absolute authority to declassify documents — though he doesn’t actually say that Trump did so. He also said the first law governing the mishandling of classified information doesn’t apply to the president.

The statute that he cited within the letter was not among the many ones the affidavit suggests the Justice Department is basing its investigation on. And in a footnote within the affidavit, an FBI agent observed that the law criminalizing the mishandling of national defense information doesn’t use the term classified information.

Meanwhile, a federal judge in Florida told the Justice Department on Saturday to supply her with more specific information concerning the classified records faraway from his Florida estate and said it was her “preliminary intent” to appoint a special master within the case. Trump’s lawyers are looking for an independent review of the records to discover any that could be protected by executive privilege.

WHAT HAS THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION SAID?

The White House has for weeks been notably circumspect concerning the investigation, with officials repeatedly saying they’ll let the Justice Department do its job. But there are signs the administration is taking note.

The director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, did notify Congress on Friday that her office would lead a classification review of the documents recovered throughout the search.

Intelligence officials can even conduct an assessment of any potential risk to national security, Haines wrote the leaders of two House committees who had requested it.

Within the letter, Haines said any intelligence assessment will probably be “conducted in a way that doesn’t unduly interfere with” the criminal investigation.

Associated Press author Nomaan Merchant in Washington contributed to this report.

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