Puzzles over the FBI search of Trump’s home

As is almost always the case with Trump, he exaggerates things. On Monday evening, he announced that his Mar-a-Lago home “is currently under siege, raided, and occupied by a large group of FBI agents”. It is not clear if this was, in actual fact, an FBI ‘raid’ in the usual sense. Those usually occur in the pre-dawn hours where armed agents break into a house, the surprise supposedly necessary to prevent the destruction of evidence. According to this report, what happened was far less dramatic.

The FBI reached out to the Secret Service shortly before serving a warrant, a third person familiar with the matter told The Associated Press. Secret Service agents contacted the Justice Department and were able to validate the warrant before facilitating access to the estate, the person said.

By the time Trump sent out his dramatic message saying that his ‘beautiful’ house was still ‘under siege’, the FBI had completed its search and left.

It appears that this search warrant was in connection with 15 boxes of classified material that the National Archives, which should get all presidential documents, had reported as missing.

According to the New York Times, the search focused on material Trump brought from the White House to Mar-a-Lago after he left office — material that included classified documents and other documents subject to the Presidential Records Act, which requires official presidential documents to be turned over to the National Archives at the end of a presidency.

If the reports that this raid focused on Trump’s alleged mishandling of classified information are accurate, however, Trump may have violated a federal law that applies to anyone who “willfully and unlawfully conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates, or destroys, or attempts to do so, or, with intent to do so takes and carries away” certain federal documents. If Trump is convicted under this statute, he may be fined and imprisoned for up to three years.

Making this more confusing is this Fox News report that said that Trump had returned the 15 boxes to the National Archives back in February. Were some documents still missing?

One factor that is unique to presidents is that they have the power to unilaterally declassify documents, so they cannot be accused of revealing classified information. But it is not clear that this applies after a presidency is over. In other words, can Trump claim that the documents are no longer classified because he no longer considered them to be classified?

Although Republicans have gone ballistic over this search, comparing it (of course) to Gestapo actions in Nazi Germany, the only unusual feature is that it is a search of an ex-president’s property. This suggests that the FBI would have had to likely clear a high bar with a judge in order to get the warrant. It should also be noted that the current head of the FBI Christopher Wray is a Trump appointee who had been praised by him as “a man of impeccable credentials”.

I still do not understand why Trump would need to take these documents. What was he planning to do with them anyway? He does not seem like the kind of person who needed them to do research in pursuit of accuracy for his memoirs. Trump’s style with a memoir would be to simply assert whatever he thinks shows him in a good light and claim that it is historically accurate.

If he wanted to hide the documents, what could they possibly contain that was not available in other locations within the government? After all, the operations of the government including the White House are now so complex that most things are in electronic form and pass through the hands of many people and end up on many computers and servers. Having just one hard copy of important documents seems highly unlikely though it is possible that Trump, who seems to be technologically illiterate, thought so and wanted to destroy them at his leisure. Maybe he hoped to slowly tear them up into small pieces and flush them down the toilet as he has tried to do in the past, clogging up toilets in the process.

A thought struck me. Trump at his rallies keeps railing that it is a sign of America’s decline that toilets need multiple flushes these days to clear waste, something that seems to be a problem only for him. Is that because he is constantly trying to flush paper?

Trevor Noah had a good commentary on this story.


  1. Oggie: Mathom says

    I still do not understand why Trump would need to take these documents.

    Wife and I have discussed this. We figure that one of three things is on the document(s) that Trump is trying so desperately to hide — a report of the loans that Trump has gotten from various Russian banks and never claimed (though how that would be a classified document I have no idea (maybe a CIA document?)), a quid pro quo between Trump and Putin promising something from the US for a personal favour to Trump, or a deal between the US government with a contractor which includes a big kickback to Trump. I know that it is most likely none of these, but I can hope?

  2. Katydid says

    Can we please stop calling this a raid? It was not a raid. The FBI came in with proper orders, and their visit was coordinated with the Secret Service who are stationed there. This was no middle-of-the-night, break-down-the-door raid.

    Also, if he has classified documents improperly stored, isn’t that a major crime in itself? Aside from any of the other things, that right there--people have gone to jail for taking classified documents outside their protective zone.

  3. Matt G says

    Classified or not, they still belong to the American people. Didn’t he sign something pertaining to documents during his time in office? Is this yet another example of him violating his own “principles”?

  4. Katydid says

    Also, Trevor calls it--the wingnuts are outraged that the FBI is investigating the crime of someone doing the crimes.

  5. anat says

    This blog post has a list of possible documents the FBI may have been searching for:

    The transcript of the “perfect phone call” with Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other documents pertaining to his first impeachment
    Notes on his meetings with other foreign leaders, especially Vladimir Putin and Saudi royals, including Trump’s July 16, 2018 meeting with Putin in Helsinki
    Information surrounding the Jamal Khashoggi execution (and other materials that make Jared Kushner’s current ties to Mohammed bin Salman suspect)
    Policy discussions surrounding Qatar, which tie to other influence peddling investigations (for which Barrack asked specifically)
    Intelligence reports on Russian influence operations
    Details pertaining to security efforts in the lead-up to and during January 6
    Intelligence reports adjacent to Trump’s false claims of election fraud (for example, pertaining to Venezuelan spying)
    Highly sensitive NSA documents pertaining to a specific foreign country that Mike Ellis was trying to hoard as boxes were being packed in January 2021

  6. says

    One factor that is unique to presidents is that they have the power to unilaterally declassify documents, so they cannot be accused of revealing classified information.

    If they reveal it without officially declassifying it, then yes, they CAN be accused of revealing classified information.

    But it is not clear that this applies after a presidency is over.

    Yes, it’s VERY clear: once you’re out of office, you have no power to declassify anything, and no right to take stuff home that’s US Government property, classified or not. It’s no more legal or acceptable than keeping your company’s laptop after you’ve been fired from the company.

    I still do not understand why Trump would need to take these documents.

    That’s easy: sheer stupid babyish spite. He didn’t put any actual thought into his actions, so why should you?

  7. says

    Also, how clueless do those Fox wingnuts have to be to say “If the FBI can do this to Trump, they can do it to YOU!!!” Well, yeah, OF COURSE they can do it to any of us! We’ve known that all our lives! They’re law-enforcement, and that’s the kind of thing law-enforcement does. DUH!

  8. Katydid says

    The FBI had to have a judge sign off on the warrant--which means they needed probable cause to believe there were classified documents at Mar a Lago. The odds are practically nil that a judge would approve a warrant for John Q. Public who has never had access to classified documents and has no history of crimes.

  9. anat says


    From here:

    Of note, following the FBI raid on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago mansion: As follow-through on his campaign promise to “lock up” Hillary Clinton, Trump signed a law in 2018 stiffening penalties for improper removal of classified documents — from one year in jail to five years, turning it into a felony offense.

  10. tuatara says

    The odds are practically nil that a judge would approve a warrant for John Q. Public who has never had access to classified documents and has no history of crimes.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but as I understand it, the FBI can request a search warrant when there is probable cause that a federal crime has been or is being committed and evidence of that crime is likely to be present at the time of the search. Thus anyone suspected of committing a federal crime or even suspected of holding evidence of a federal crime can be subject to a search warrant by the FBI, John Q. Public included.
    The presence of “classified documents” is of course only relevant if the illegal possession of said “classified documents” is the suspected crime. As for having no history of crimes, since when did that stop an investigation of a “suspected crime”?
    And do we even know that T***p is the suspect? While I hope it is so, at this stage I only know that his home in Florida has been searched by the FBI.

  11. Steve Morrison says

    Re the toilet-flushing issue: when we first got a low-flow toilet, i had trouble getting it to flush properly until I learned to hold the handle down while it finished flushing. Maybe Trump just never figured that out?

  12. Katydid says

    @10: IANAL, but my understanding is that a judge must sign off on a warrant. If the FBI comes to a judge and says, “We want a warrant to search John Q. Public’s house for classified information”, it seems to me a judge would ask, “Why do you suspect that person has classified information?” If the FBI comes back with, “We have zero reason; we just want to search for grins-&-giggles”, a judge would likely turn them down. This is the reason that you don’t see thousands of people every week whose homes have been searched for classified information. You have, however, seen people in whose homes classified information was found (Booz Allen seemed to have a lot of them for awhile, a few years back). Those people are now in jail because it is a crime to have classified information just lying around your house.

    Turns out the FBI had a mole embedded in Mar-a-Lago, and probably witnessed/overheard talk of classified documents, and since TFG is infamous for committing crimes and it was entirely plausible that in the many boxes that were illegally brought to Mar-a-Lago, that was the suspicion the judge needed to hear to okay the warrant.

  13. tuatara says

    @12. I am not a USAian, so please bear with me, but are you saying that the only crime that the FBI can seek a search warrant for John Q. Public in the USA is the possession of classified documents?

    Is it not the case that the FBI would have to go to a judge with probable cause that any federal crime has been committed, or evidence of said federal crime is likely to be at the property at the time of the search.
    I fail to see the actual relevance of the “classified documents” bit in a request for a search warrant for any other federal crime that John Q. Public is suspected of and may be the subject of a search.
    So, can the FBI search the residence of T***p or any other citizen or resident of the USA given probable cause of any federal crime, or must it involve classified documents in every case?

  14. says

    Yes, Federal officers can search anyone’s house, including Trump’s, with a warrant based on probable cause, for any Federal crime, not just stealing classified documents.

  15. John Morales says

    Saw this article today:

    Garland pulled this off with a straightforward legal filing: The Department of Justice requested that the judge in Trump’s case unseal the search warrant and the FBI property receipt listing what was taken from Mar-a-Lago, “absent objection from the former President.”

    This puts the onus on Trump and his lawyers—who for the past three days have unleashed fury against the FBI and gone so far as to suggest the bureau was “planting” evidence—to object in court to unsealing the documents in order to keep them secret. This immediately flips the script away from the saturation of “what is the DOJ hiding” media coverage of the past few days and raises the obvious question: If Trump objects to unsealing these documents, what is he hiding?

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