Few details are known about what the FBI was looking for during the day-long search of former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
But one thing is clear: That federal investigators were seeking a search warrant and conducting an unannounced search of the property while Trump was absent suggests they believe the evidence sought was worth any expected political backlash.
The attack began quickly after the former president made the search public, with his allies demanding more information and rallied around calls for an investigation into the events, which they condemned as partisan witch hunts and abuse of power. Leaders of the Republican House of Representatives have promised to conduct investigations by the Justice Department and the FBI if they gain control of the House of Representatives in November.
Justice Department officials have yet to comment publicly on the search, which Trump described as a “raid” in a lengthy statement revealing it took place. And possibly not, despite persistent demands from Republican lawmakers, given the department’s reluctance to acknowledge ongoing investigations.
The former president’s son, Eric Trump, told Fox News Monday night that federal investigators were looking for records that had not been turned over to the National Archives when his father left the White House. FBI agents left a copy of the search warrant, including a detailed list of what they were looking for and what was removed. Trump attorney Christina Bobb told the Real America’s Voice streaming service that she was present during the search and agents told her they were looking for classified documents.
Violations of the Presidential Records Act have happened before and are usually dealt with quietly, said presidential historian and George Washington University professor Matt Dallek, noting that the search raises questions about what may have been in Trump’s possession and such reaction required.
“Typically, former presidents aren’t necessarily treated as hostile, uncooperative criminals,” Dallek said. “That’s the striking thing about it, this anti-investigative quality.”
Trump, who was in New York at the time of the search, said authorities broke into his safe. In his statement, he said Mar-A-Lago was “besieged, raided and occupied” and “never has anything like this happened to a President of the United States.”
The last point is correct. Since Congress enacted the law in 1978 in response to then-President Nixon’s handling of papers related to the Watergate scandal, several presidents have flouted it, taking home memorabilia, letters or gifts intended for the national archives. But such situations are usually treated as misunderstandings, and the National Archives and the FBI have successfully negotiated with former presidents and their attorneys to recover the material without a fuss.
In February, the National Archives announced that it had recovered 15 boxes of materials Trump took with him to Mar-a-Lago, rather than handing them over to a presidential library for possible research and public viewing when he left the White House in 2021 The boxes reportedly contained documents marked secret or top secret and some that had been destroyed. At the time, Trump called recovery “routine” and “no big deal.”
The national archivist said in February that Trump officials would continue to search for additional records. The agency also asked the Justice Department this month to consider whether a criminal charge was warranted.
“Having worked and cooperated with the appropriate government agencies, this unannounced raid on my home was neither necessary nor appropriate,” Trump said in his statement Monday.
Dallek said the search could be a sign that relations had broken down.
“I assume that any information or documents that the FBI wanted they believed were not given to them and that Trump refused to … release or return any documents,” Dallek said.
Prosecuting a Presidential Records Act violation is difficult and rare. The statute gives the president wide discretion to decide what is a personal record and what is a presidential record. To prove a violation under the Presidential Records Act, prosecutors would need to show that the person intentionally mishandled the material or acted with gross negligence.
Former Clinton administration national security adviser Sandy Berger, for example, was prosecuted and fined $50,000 for smuggling classified documents from the national archives in 2003.
The law has long been considered uncontroversial, as most presidents and their staff work with national archives throughout their tenure to determine what needs to be preserved for posterity, such as: B. Notes for writing a speech and what to take home, including medical records.
Now that he’s out of office, Trump no longer has the authority to release documents, said Georgetown University law professor David Super.
“Even if they’re unclassified, they’re federal property and he took them,” Super said. “The plot is very, very clear. The first thing it says is that this is property of the United States.”
The possible punishment under the law is a fine, up to three years in prison, and a requirement that the person alleged to have violated the law “forfeit his office and be disqualified from holding office in the United States.” The law has never been applied to a president whose qualifications are set out in the Constitution, and Trump would likely spend years challenging the law in court if impeached.
Dallek said the search of a former president’s home may indicate the Justice Department believes recovering the material is a national security issue.
“You have to believe that the FBI isn’t securing a warrant and is essentially conducting an enemy raid — including the former president’s safe — to get a random State Department cable anywhere in the world,” Dallek said. “It must be extremely serious, at least in their eyes.”
Federal investigators likely had to meet a higher standard of evidence before they were even allowed to apply for a warrant, said former FBI Special Agent Ken Gray.
“In a case involving a search of a former President’s residence, nothing would be routine. It’s a completely unusual circumstance, but consequently this is such a high-profile endeavor [that] The Director of the FBI should have verified this, and it would have gone through the DOJ to the Attorney General,” Gray said.
Before a warrant was issued, a county court judge or federal judge would have reviewed the supporting affidavit detailing what evidence agents were looking for and the probable reason they had to believe that evidence of a crime in Trump’s house would be found, he said.
Federal agents were reportedly dressed in civilian clothes and were escorted by Secret Service through the property, which also houses a private club.
Despite Republican calls for transparency about what led to the search, Gray said it was immediately politicized in a way that he doesn’t expect the Justice Department to release more details any time soon. Several political observers have speculated that the search could spur Trump’s announcement of a 2024 bid, and his super PAC used it to raise funds on Monday.
“If President Trump hadn’t made this a big issue, we might not even have known this was happening,” Gray said.
https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2022-08-09/fbi-search-of-trumps-home-shows-seriousness-of-information-being-sought Mar-a-Lago search shows seriousness of Trump information sought