The FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s Palm Beach (Florida, USA) mansion was seeking evidence of violations of at least three federal laws cited in the search warrant unsealed on August 12 by the South Florida court that authorized the search. US Attorney General Merrick Garland requested that it be unsealed for the public and the former president belatedly agreed to its release.
The warrant indicates that federal agents are investigating potential violations of three different federal laws, including one that governs gathering, transmitting or losing defense information under the Espionage Act. The other statutes address the concealment, mutilation or removal of records and the destruction, alteration, or falsification of records in federal investigations. According to US press reports, investigators received a tip that was used as the basis for the as-yet unreleased affidavit that justified the search.
The crimes under investigation are not mentioned explicitly in the search warrant, which instead cites specific articles from US federal law (United States Code - USC). The articles cited are from USC Title 18 of the USC, which covers criminal law.
The seven-page search warrant was signed by a judge at noon on August 5, two days before the search proceeded unnoticed until Trump announced that it was taking place. The operation was not leaked, and the White House confirmed that it had no prior knowledge of the search warrant. Garland publicly acknowledged that he personally made the decision to request the search warrant.
Search warrant details
The first page is simply a notice that the public or redacted version (omitting some names for privacy reasons) of the document is being filed, and includes a short description of the warrant’s content.
The second page is the actual search and seizure warrant. It has a deadline of August 19 and limits the warrant’s execution to 6am-10pm. It was signed by US Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart, and refers to several attachments for the details of the place to be searched and the items to be seized.
The third page, Attachment A, provides the street address and description of the location to be searched: “… a resort, club, and residence located near the intersection of Southern Blvd and S Ocean Blvd. It is described as a mansion with approximately 58 bedrooms, 33 bathrooms, on a 17-acre estate. The locations to be searched include the ‘45 Office,’ all storage rooms, and all other rooms or areas within the premises used or available to be used by FPOTUS and his staff and in which boxes or documents could be stored, including all structures or buildings on the estate. It does not include areas currently (i.e., at the time of the search) being occupied, rented, or used by third parties (such as Mar-a-Largo Members) and not otherwise used or available to be used by FPOTUS and his staff, such as private guest suites.”
The fourth page, Attachment B, gets to the heart of the matter. It identifies the property to be seized as, “All physical documents and records constituting evidence, contraband, fruits of crime, or other items illegally possessed in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 793, 2071, or 1519…”
Penalties of up to 33 years in prison
What do these sections of federal law say? Section 793 covers part of the Espionage Act and can be broadly applied, such as to people who steal US secrets for another country. The warrant does not specify which paragraph Trump is suspected of violating, but paragraph (d) applies to “Whoever, lawfully having possession of, access to, control over, or being entrusted with any document, writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, photographic negative, blueprint, plan, map, model, instrument, appliance, or note relating to the national defense, or information relating to the national defense which information the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation… [who] willfully retains the same and fails to deliver it on demand to the officer or employee of the United States entitled to receive it.” Violators of any part of section 793 can be punished by fines and/or imprisonment for up to 10 years.
The Espionage Act, which punishes espionage as well as the mismanagement of secret or national security information, was passed in 1917 during World War I, decades before the current information classification system was established. Although Trump now claims that he declassified the documents, that does not automatically clear him of having committed a crime.
Section 2071 of USC Title 18 has two paragraphs. Paragraph (b) states, " Whoever, having the custody of any such record, proceeding, map, book, document, paper, or other thing, willfully and unlawfully conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates, falsifies, or destroys the same, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both; and shall forfeit his office and be disqualified from holding any office under the United States. As used in this subsection, the term ‘office’ does not include the office held by any person as a retired officer of the Armed Forces of the United States.”
That disqualification from holding public office affects federal officials, but some question whether it applies to a president. Since the requirements for becoming president of the United States are stated in its constitution, legal scholars believe that an ordinary law cannot impose different requirements. A legal battle over this issue would likely land in the lap of a Supreme Court that consists of three of its nine justices appointed by Trump.
Section 1519 is the shortest and simplest of the laws cited in the search warrant. Often used in FBI investigations, it covers the destruction, alteration, or falsification of records in federal investigations and bankruptcy, and states, “Whoever knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States or any case filed under title 11, or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.”
The maximum penalties for violations of the laws cited in the warrant are 10, 3, and 20 years imprisonment (for one count), respectively. The sentencing judges has the flexibility to modify the sentence according to the seriousness of the offense. There is no indication yet as to what course of action Attorney General Garland will take.
Attachment B of the search warrant specifies the seizure of: “a. Any physical documents with classification markings, along with any containers/boxes (including any other contents) in which such documents are located, as well as any other containers/boxes that are collectively stored or found together with the aforementioned documents and containers/boxes; b. Information, including communications in any form, regarding the retrieval, storage, or transmission of national defense information or classified material; c. Any government and/or Presidential Records created between January 20, 2017, and January 20, 2021 [Trump’s presidential term]; or d. Any evidence of the knowing alteration, destruction, or concealment of any government and/or Presidential Records, or of any documents with classification markings.”
US law requires presidents to preserve and protect all documents and records they produce while in office, including reports, messages and handwritten notes, and to turn them over to the National Archives upon leaving office. Trump flagrantly failed to comply with that law. In May 2021, National Archives staff asked the ex-president about a number of undelivered documents. In January 2022, Trump turned over 15 boxes of documents that included letters from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and the note left to him by his predecessor, Barack Obama, on his last day as president. The boxes contained some documents classified as secret, according to the National Archives. But documents were still missing, so the National Archives asked the Justice Department to open an investigation. A subpoena was issued in June to recover the missing documents, but nothing was turned over to the federal agents who showed up in June at Mar-a-Lago.
Pages 5-7 of the search warrant list 39 items and a large number of documents with top secret/sensitive compartmented information, top secret, secret, and confidential classifications. The exact number of documents seized is unknown because of imprecise descriptions such as “Miscellaneous top secret documents.”
Number 2A on the document list says, “Various documents classified TS/SCI,” which stands for top secret/sensitive compartmented information. This classification corresponds to documents that must only be reviewed in a special, secure official facility. There are four sets of “various top secret documents,” three sets of “various secret documents”, two sets of “various confidential documents,” and an additional confidential document.
The property seizure list includes 26 labeled boxes, one of which is leather-bound, the pardon order of former Trump adviser Roger Stone, information pertaining to French President Emmanuel Macron, two binders of photographs, a handwritten note, and an unspecified “potential presidential record.”
That’s all the information provided by the search warrant and attachments. The nature and content of the classified documents and other items has not been made public. The receipt for the seized goods is signed at 6:19pm on August 8, the day of the search.