Trump Under Investigation for Possible Violations of Espionage Act

Top secret classified information was among the documents recovered from the former president’s Florida resort.

By , , and
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to supporters.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to supporters.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally in Waukesha, Wisconsin, on Aug. 5. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Former U.S. President Donald Trump is under investigation for potential violations of the Espionage Act, according to a search warrant unsealed by a Florida court on Friday.

Eleven sets of classified documents were recovered from Trump’s Florida resort during an FBI search on Monday, part of a trove of about two dozen boxes of secret and top-secret documents, according to an inventory that was released alongside the warrant. Also retrieved was information pertaining to the “President of France.”

Included among around 20 boxes taken from Mar-a-Lago were four sets of top-secret documents, three sets of confidential documents, and one set of documents marked as Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information, a designation for the most sensitive classified government information that is required to be housed in special protected government facilities.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump is under investigation for potential violations of the Espionage Act, according to a search warrant unsealed by a Florida court on Friday.

Eleven sets of classified documents were recovered from Trump’s Florida resort during an FBI search on Monday, part of a trove of about two dozen boxes of secret and top-secret documents, according to an inventory that was released alongside the warrant. Also retrieved was information pertaining to the “President of France.”

Included among around 20 boxes taken from Mar-a-Lago were four sets of top-secret documents, three sets of confidential documents, and one set of documents marked as Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information, a designation for the most sensitive classified government information that is required to be housed in special protected government facilities.

The search warrant and list of items retrieved from Trump’s home were released on Friday after the government filed a motion to unseal the documents on Thursday, citing intense public interest in the case and the fact that Trump opted to make news of the search public on Monday. 

The warrant indicates that the former president is being investigated under suspicion of violating three separate statutes regarding the handling of sensitive government information, obstruction of justice, and potential violations of the Espionage Act regarding the gathering, transmitting, or losing of defense information. 

“To see that subsection used as a foundation for a search warrant executed at the home of the former president of the United States is a startling thing,” said David Laufman, a former U.S. Justice Department official who served as head of the counterintelligence and export control section. Laufman said to his knowledge, no former president has ever been investigated under the act. 

The Espionage Act is wide ranging and includes the mishandling of classified government documents as well as its disclosure to foreign adversaries. The primary statute, U.S. Code 793, focuses on national security information “used to the injury of the United States, or to the advantage of any foreign nation.”

The unsealed warrant answers some critical details about the FBI’s search of Trump’s property, which sparked a political firestorm from the former president and his allies in the Republican Party. However, the affidavit, which would provide a much more detailed justification for the FBI search as well as methodology and sources for the investigation, remains under seal. 

Rep. Michael McCaul, a Republican who is a former attorney and federal prosecutor, said he wants U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to unseal the affidavit so lawmakers and the public can better understand the decision. 

“Only the affidavit in support of the search warrant will be able to shed light and tell us what was this really all about,” he said. “To date, I don’t really have an answer to that. I know it will be very extraordinary to release that, and it could be done by the attorney general, and I would ask and request he do that just because of the extraordinary case here.”

Trump and some of his allies in the Republican Party lambasted the FBI raid as “unwarranted” and “unnecessary” and accused his political opponents of orchestrating the raid as an attack against him. 

The FBI investigation “does not carry any weight,” Trump attorney Christina Bobb told conservative media outlet Real America’s Voice following the search. Bobb, who served in the Department of Homeland Security under the former administration, signed the search warrant on Monday before the raid.

The attacks from Trump and his allies on the FBI’s moves in turn prompted counterattacks by Democrats, who accused the former president of mishandling classified information and politicizing efforts by the FBI to recover those documents. Garland said he personally signed off on the FBI operation, whereas other Biden administration officials said the White House was not informed of the raid in advance. 

Trump allies have argued that a sitting president has the right to declassify information. But there is still a detailed process involved. “The documents don’t become declassified because the president, in his head, thinks they should be or he makes some flippant aside to an aide,” said Laufman, the former Justice Department official. 

None of the statutes in question hinge on whether the material in question remains classified. In any event, information regarding U.S. nuclear weapons systems is an exception and cannot be unilaterally declassified by the president. 

Several legal experts said the mishandling of classified information, as this warrant suggests, would lead to a prosecution under normal circumstances, but they stressed that it remains unclear whether Trump will face charges given the political sensitivities involved. 

“I will say that I have had clients prosecuted for a lot less than this,” said Mark Zaid, an attorney with extensive experience representing former military and intelligence officials.

“In a normal situation, someone would be prosecuted for this,” said Andrew Bakaj, an attorney at Compass Rose Legal Group and a former CIA intelligence officer. However, he cautioned that “there’s a lot we don’t know” about the case still. “This could have been an operation to get the documents back, or it could be part of a larger investigation.” 

The unsealed search warrant and inventory were released on the heels of reporting in the Washington Post asserting that the FBI was looking for documents related to nuclear documents and that signals intelligence was included in the documents seized from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property. The report stated it was unclear whether any nuclear documents were actually obtained on Monday during the search. Foreign Policy could not independently verify the report. 

On Thursday, Trump called for the documents to be released in a series of posts on social media. Federal Judge Bruce Reinhart, who is overseeing the case, gave Trump’s lawyers until Friday afternoon to object to the documents’ release, but his counsel consented.

A group of House Republicans held a press conference on Friday condemning the FBI search of the former president’s Florida resort, alleging that it was a move to disrupt the GOP’s political momentum ahead of the U.S. midterms. “The FBI raid of President Trump is a complete abuse and overreach of its authority,” said Rep. Elise Stefanik, the third-ranking Republican member in the House of Representatives and a member of the House Select Intelligence and Armed Services Committees.

Political analysts and lawmakers said the raid will serve to motivate Trump’s base ahead of his possible run for the presidency while further undermining Trump supporters’ trust in federal government institutions. 

In a brief press conference on Thursday, Garland announced that he had personally approved the search warrant. “The department does not take such a decision lightly. Where possible, it is standard practice to seek less intrusive means as an alternative to a search,” he said. Trump had previously ignored a subpoena to return the purloined documents.

Garland also sought to address what he described as recent “unfounded attacks on the professionalism of the FBI.” Senior members of the Republican Party have assailed the FBI and the Justice Department for the search on Monday, with House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy accusing the department of having reached “an intolerable state of weaponized politicization.”

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy said on Twitter that the “overheated rhetoric of Trump, his supporters, and Republican leaders is threatening the lives of law enforcement.”

On Thursday, an armed man in body armor attempted to enter a FBI field office in Cincinnati before fleeing the scene. The man, identified as Ricky Shiffer, was later killed after exchanging gunfire with law enforcement. 

“Violence and threats against law enforcement, including the FBI, are dangerous and should be deeply concerning to all Americans,” said FBI director Christopher Wray, a Trump appointee, in a statement.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Mary Yang is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MaryRanYang

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