What the Mar-a-Lago Warrant Tells Us

At first read the newly-released Mar-a-Lago search warrant reveals little, with about half its pages redacted. It does suggest two possible narratives going forward, one with severe political implications: the National Archives sicced the FBI on Candidate Trump.

The warrant does say the search was based on “a significant number of civilian witnesses” to Trump’s actions and the Twitterverse is already alive speculating who that might have been (Ivanka or a maid?) This will generate a thousand conspiracy theories as to who first told the FBI about the classified documents stored at Mar-a-Lago but in the end adds little to key questions. The warrant also includes a single line saying prosecutors requesting to search Trump’s residence had “probable cause to believe that evidence of obstruction will be found” without explaining what was potentially obstructed and how. The warrant makes clear it does not matter if the documents seized were classified, or had been declassified.

The real meat of the warrant is redacted, some 14 out of its 32 pages. We get the beginning and end but not the important middle. The warrant reiterates the sections of law of concern are 18 U.S.C. §§ 793, “Gathering, transmitting or losing defense information… with intent or reason to believe that the information is to be used to the injury of the United States, or to the advantage of any foreign nation,” part of the infamous Espionage Act of 1917. Also included is 18 U.S.C. §§ 2071, “Concealment, removal, or mutilation generally of an record” and 18 U.S.C. §§ 1519, the “anti-shredding provision” which imposes criminal penalties on anyone who “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 or obstruct an investigation.” This section of law as a possible violation is what the line had “probable cause to believe that evidence of obstruction will be found” likely refers to.

The warrant gives us the laws in question, and a slightly fuller accounting of what was found at Mar-a-Lago, including previously when Trump cooperatively allowed DOJ to remove items from his home. The warrant tell us 15 boxes taken voluntarily in May contain NDI, National Defense Information. The documents lean toward the higher end of the classified spectrum. Sub-designators include Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI), classified information derived from intelligence sources, methods, or analytical processes, Special Intelligence (SI) meaning technical and intelligence information derived from the monitoring of foreign communications signals, and HUMINT Control System, or HCS, meaning intelligence information derived from clandestine human sources. 

Redacted is the in between, the narrative portion of the warrant which links the laws potentially violated with the evidence found/to be looked for. This is especially important for the obstruction charge, which may be as simple as Trump refusing voluntary access to materials stored at Mar-a-Lago, a conclusion which would also explain the need to obtain a warrant.

Based on the visible portions of the warrant, two possible scenarios exist.

One scenario is Trump takes documents with him from the White House; the National Archives requests those documents returned; Trump voluntarily returns some of them in May and refuses to give up any more documents; DOJ obtains a search warrant under the above criminal codes to seize the remainder of the documents through the involuntary search in August. Trump is “guilty” of not returning his classified library books and the DOJ used the search warrant to go pick them up. The argument would be whether the documents in question qualify as “presidential records” and thus could have stayed under Trump’s control, or “government records” which should have been under control of the National Archives. Comments by Trump and one of his attorneys suggest this may be the view Trumpworld is taking of all this.

DOJ seems to be taking a different view, given the unreturned documents appear to be highly classified, and that is to criminalize Trump’s actions. The very first line of the warrant states “The government is conducting a criminal investigation concerning the improper removal and storage of classified information in unauthorized spaces, as well as the unlawful concealment or removal of government records. The investigation began as a result of a referral the United States National Archives and Records Administration (NARA.)”

Under this scenario, Trump knowingly takes classified documents with him from the White House; the National Archives requests those documents returned; Trump voluntarily returns some of them in May but refuses to return the remainder; DOJ obtains a search warrant under the above criminal codes to seize the documents through the involuntary search in August both to regain possession to safeguard the material against future misuse by Trump and as evidence of his crime of illegal possession; DOJ indicts Trump, criminalizing his possession of the documents instead of seeing that as a legitimate disagreement over what qualifies as  a presidential record. Obstruction charges come from the lack of cooperation in August as shown in May, necessitating the warrant and full-on field search. None of this scenario requires the documents to be classified, or is affected if Trump declassified any of them. This would be consistent with a footnote on page 21 of the warrant stating “18 U.S.C. 793(e) does not use the term classified information but rather criminalizes the unlawful retention of information relating to the national defense.” (emphasis added) In short, the Archives sicced the FBI on Trump.

Even if either of the above narratives is substantively true, this is not a slam dunk case that will end any potential Trump candidacy. In the former Trump and NARA will argue, likely via motions in front of some court, over which documents were the president’s to control and which were not, a discussion which will break down into technical chatter.

The latter scenario will generate smoke as it is a criminal matter and potential source of indictment for Trump, but absent some sort of unlikely proven criminal intent (Trump planned to give the documents to the Russians!) and in the face of claims it is all banana republics-style politicization of the judicial, will generate little fire. It is unlikely the Trump journey ends over a document dispute with the National Archives.

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3 Comments

  • Rich Bauer on said:

    The rat who told the Feds where the top secret stuff was hidden also knows why Demented stole the documents. Unless Trump makes a convincing case he is a hoarder with dementia, there is only one explanation: money.

  • Rich Bauer on said:

    The ends justify the means. In Trump’s case, his end will mean justice and all his money a long go.

  • Rich Bauer on said:

    What the stolen Mar-a-Lago top secret documents tell US

    The FBI by now must have a pretty good idea what Demented was going to do with those TS docs. Salacious reports on foreign and US politicos? Putin reports that his boss would appreciate? The biggest reveal may be: How does a clown who has a brain resembling McDonald’s Big Macs – you are what you eat- organize a multilevel coup? Fingerprints of Bannon, Flynn etc? Trump took these TS docs for Coup 2.0 but the moron can’t read. So who told him what they were?

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