As part of an investigation into the handling of presidential records, former President Donald Trump’s palatial Mar-a-Lago property in West Palm Beach, Florida, was searched by FBI agents for several hours on Monday.
Trump’s whinnying about the impropriety of the search followed agents reportedly poring over the contents of the former president’s personal office on the property and searching an area where other paper records were stored. Several boxes were removed. In an interview on Fox Monday night, Eric Trump, Trump’s son and the executive vice president of the Trump Organization, said he believed the purpose of the raid was because the National Archives wished to “corroborate whether or not Donald Trump had any documents in his possession.”
Trump, who at any time could publish the details of the warrant served on him, has so far failed to do so.
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The National Archives first asked the Department of Justice to begin reviewing Trump’s handling of White House records this February after officials recovered 15 boxes from Mar-a-Lago that were not returned to the government as required under the Presidential Records Act when Trump left office. There were concerns by archivists that Trump may have destroyed records or failed to turn several items over, including documents that might be classified.
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Jason Leopold, an investigative reporter at Bloomberg, filed a Freedom of Information Act request earlier this year to find out what happened to records taken by Trump. The FBI responded by stating it could neither confirm nor deny the documents existed because doing so would be “tantamount to acknowledging the existence or non-existence of a pending investigation.”
The Monday visit to Mar-a-Lago was not the first by investigators reviewing Trump’s issues with records preservation.
According to CNN, this June, a quartet of Justice Department investigators showed up at Mar-a-Lago to meet with Trump’s attorneys, Christinia Bobb and Evan Corcoran. An unnamed source told CNN Trump was cordial with investigators at the time, though he did not answer any questions and didn’t stick around when agents spoke with his lawyers.
Department of Justice investigators managed to squeeze in a look at a basement-level office during that visit and sources told CNN that “some of the documents shown to investigators had ‘Top Secret’ markings.”
This reportedly happened around June 3.
That room was secured less than a week later and “padlocked” at the request of agents and with cooperation from Trump’s attorneys. Bobb and Corcoran did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Daily Kos on Tuesday.
News of the search at Mar-a-Lago broke first courtesy of Peter Schorsch of FloridaPolitics.com.
In order to obtain a federal search warrant, an affidavit must be submitted under oath before a federal judge. At this level, details are typically extensive in a warrant application because agents must show that there is probable cause to believe a specific crime happened at a specific location. It does not have to be established that a particular individual committed a crime.
A search warrant being executed on a former president of the United States bears significant historical weight and it is almost certain that officials at the highest level, including Attorney General Merrick Garland himself, had to sign off on the decision.
A representative from the department did not immediately return a request for comment, but the agency has historically declined comment on ongoing investigations.
If in the process of conducting a search evidence of another crime is discovered, agents are allowed to collect that evidence, but only if it is in plain sight. How the findings at Mar-a-Lago might impact other ongoing probes into Trump’s conduct remains to be seen.
The Justice Department has spent several weeks reportedly accelerating its scrutiny on the former president’s role in events around Jan. 6, namely his part in a scheme to advance fake electors in seven battleground states.
A federal grand jury issued subpoenas to some of the fake electors earlier this year. Subpoenas also went to officials who spearheaded the fake elector gambit on the path to Jan. 6, including Trump’s attorneys Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis as well as other lawyers who advised Trump like John Eastman, the architect of a six-point plan to overturn the 2020 election results.
Former Vice President Mike Pence was a key element in the plan to push the fake elector scheme. He was mercilessly pressured by Trump to unilaterally delay or stop the count on Jan. 6 even though he lacked constitutional authority to do so. Pence’s former Chief of Staff Marc Short and his counsel Greg Jacob testified about this pressure campaign at length and under oath before the Jan. 6 committee this year. Short and Jacob have since testified before a federal grand jury investigating the fake elector operation.
In addition to the Pence pressure campaign, sources have also told outlets like The Washington Post that federal prosecutors have grilled witnesses about Trump’s meetings in December 2020 and January 2021 and have sought details about conversations he had with staff or other officials about his bunk electors.
Phone records from key Trump aides, like his Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, were seized by the department this spring too. It is believed that prosecutors are trying to parse out what instructions Trump gave to those around him, like Giuliani and Eastman, to carry out the bogus elector plot. Eastman’s phone was searched last month. The home of Jeffrey Clark, the former Department of Justice attorney who supported Trump’s bid to overturn the election, was also searched.
When it comes to Jan. 6, this scheme—and the potential fraud committed therein—is one major part of what the Department of Justice is assessing. The other major prong of the department’s Jan. 6 probe is believed to focus on matters of conspiracy, both conspiracy to obstruct a congressional proceeding and seditious conspiracy.
Trump is currently facing multiple investigations and this one, which appears to be anchored to missing records, is just the latest to rise to the surface publicly.
The Jan. 6 committee’s probe is still ongoing after an intense summer of hearings where witnesses—and almost exclusively Republican witnesses, it is worth noting—detailed firsthand accounts of Trunp’s push to overturn the 2020 election results and stop a peaceful transfer of power on Jan. 6. Though the committee cannot actually charge Trump with any crimes, they do have the power to issue criminal referrals to the Department of Justice. The committee has been publicly split about doing so.
In addition to seditious conspiracy and obstruction, the committee also raised questions this summer about whether Trump engaged in mail or wire fraud when he raised a whopping $250 million for a “legal defense fund” to contest the 2020 election results but ended up funneling that money to pro-Trump political action committees and other Trump-aligned organizations.
Richard Painter, a former ethics lawyer for former President George W. Bush, told NPR in June that while it isn’t illegal for political candidates to move campaign funds around, the problem with Trump’s fundraising potentially lies in how he went about raising it. If Trump knew he was raising funds on a lie—i.e., that the 2020 election was rigged—that could be considered a criminal act.
The committee worked overtime this summer to present evidence demonstrating Trump knew he lost the 2020 election but pursued ways to overturn his defeat anyway.
There was also a special grand jury formed in Georgia this May after the state’s district attorney, Fani Willis, opened a probe into Trump’s attempt to pressure state officials to overturn election results there. Mere days before the insurrection, Trump called on Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” the exact number of votes that Trump needed to defeat Joe Biden, his opponent in the race.
There are also two inquiries playing out in New York: Letitia James, the state’s attorney general, is in the thick of a civil probe reviewing whether the Trump Organization juked property values for a profit. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has also been slowly—very slowly—reviewing whether Trump’s real estate venture fudged property valuations in order to secure bank loans. Controversy has swirled around this investigation, with accusations emerging this March that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg hamstrung it because he was fearful of indicting Trump. This prompted two of the top lawyers on the case to resign. Bragg has since declared that the probe is ongoing and brushed off accusations that he is slow-walking it.
One of the lawyers who resigned in that investigation, Mark Pomerantz, told CNBC last month that if Trump were “Joe Blow from Kokomo,” he would have been charged already.
In a report by Rolling Stone out Tuesday, sources said Trump has been “narrowing the shortlist” of those criminal defense attorneys who he would hire to fend off the Justice Department and is particularly worried about whether the feds have tapped his phones.
Historically, Trump has relied on executive privilege to shield scrutiny of his records and conduct. It is not yet clear how much he intends to rely on this should he try to stop the DOJ from conducting witness interviews before a grand jury, for example. It is notable that he has already lost several executive privilege fights to shield Jan. 6 records, including at the Supreme Court which found this January that even if Trump were the sitting president, his attempt to override privilege already waived by the existing president would fail.
Former federal prosecutor John Rowley has been retained by Trump to deal with executive privilege fights. Rowley also represents a number of other Trump-world figures including Peter Navarro, Trump’s onetime trade adviser currently fighting off a contempt of Congress indictment.