The FBI recovered documents that were labelled "top secret" from former U.S. president Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, according to court papers released Friday after a federal judge unsealed the warrant that authorized the unprecedented search this week.
A property receipt unsealed by the court shows FBI agents took 11 sets of classified records from the estate during a search on Monday.
The seized records include some that were marked classified as top secret and also "sensitive compartmented information," a special category meant to protect the nation's most important secrets and those that if revealed publicly would harm U.S. interests. The court records did not provide specific details about the documents or what information they might contain.
The warrant details that federal agents were investigating potential violations of three different federal laws, including one that governs gathering, transmitting or losing defence information under the Espionage Act. The other statutes address the concealment, mutilation or removal of records and the destruction, alteration, or falsification of records in federal investigations.
The property receipt also showed federal agents collected other potential presidential records, including the order pardoning Trump ally Roger Stone, a "leatherbound box of documents," and information about the "President of France." A binder of photos, a handwritten note, "miscellaneous secret documents" and "miscellaneous confidential documents" were also seized in the search.
Trump's attorney, Christina Bobb, who was present at Mar-a-Lago when the agents conducted the search, signed both property receipts — one that was two pages long and another that is a single page.
In a statement Friday, Trump claimed that the documents seized by agents at his Florida club situated on the estate were "all declassified," and argued that he would have turned over the documents to the Justice Department if asked.
While incumbent presidents have the power to declassify information, that authority lapses as soon as they leave office and it was not clear if the documents in question have ever been declassified.
Trump also kept possession of the documents despite multiple requests from agencies, including the National Archives, to turn over presidential records in accordance with federal law.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart, the same judge who signed off on the search warrant, unsealed the warrant and property receipt Friday at the request of the Justice Department after Attorney General Merrick Garland declared there was "substantial public interest in this matter," and Trump backed the warrant's "immediate" release. The Justice Department told the judge Friday afternoon that Trump's lawyers did not object to the proposal to make it public.
In messages posted on his Truth Social platform, Trump wrote, "Not only will I not oppose the release of documents ... I am going a step further by ENCOURAGING the immediate release of those documents."
Trump himself had been given at least some of the records the government was seeking to unseal, but he and his lawyers have declined, so far, to make them public.
'The public's clear and powerful interest'
The Justice Department's request is striking because such documents traditionally remain sealed during a pending investigation. But the department appeared to recognize that its silence since the search had created a vacuum for bitter verbal attacks by Trump and his allies, and that the public was entitled to the FBI's side about what prompted Monday's action at the former president's home.
"The public's clear and powerful interest in understanding what occurred under these circumstances weighs heavily in favour of unsealing," said a motion filed in federal court in Florida on Thursday.
The information was released as Trump prepares for another run for the White House. During his 2016 campaign, he pointed frequently to an FBI investigation into his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, over whether she mishandled classified information.
To obtain a search warrant, federal authorities must prove to a judge that probable cause exists to believe that a crime was committed. Garland said he personally approved the warrant, a decision he said the department did not take lightly given that standard practice where possible is to select less intrusive tactics than a search of one's home.
In this case, according to a person familiar with the matter, there was substantial engagement with Trump and his representatives prior to the search warrant, including a subpoena for records and a visit to Mar-a-Lago a couple of months ago by FBI and Justice Department officials to assess how the documents were stored. The person was not authorized to discuss the matter by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Neither Trump nor the FBI has said anything about what documents the FBI might have recovered, or what precisely agents were looking for.