Ed Pilkington, The Guardian
The news that sent tremors across America broke at 6.36pm on Monday when the publisher of an obscure Florida politics website tweeted that the FBI had raided Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home, adding with a pinch of self-deprecation: “TBH, I’m not a strong enough reporter to hunt this down, but it’s real.”
Eighteen minutes later another Florida resident responded to the news with more bombast. “These are dark times for our nation, as my beautiful home … is currently under siege, raided, and occupied by a large group of FBI agents,” the former president said in a rage-filled statement.
More than 30 FBI agents, armed with a search warrant issued by a federal magistrate from West Palm Beach, are reported to have entered Trump’s private residence and offices at his Mar-a-Lago club. According to NBC News, they stayed on site most of the day.
Despite Trump’s cries of “siege” and “occupation” there was no unseemly bashing down of doors or igniting of loud flash-bangs for which the FBI is legendary in other situations. The search team had alerted the Secret Service agents guarding the compound in advance, ensuring an orderly execution of the warrant.
Once the operation was under way, the FBI placed a call to Eric Trump, the former president’s son, who according to the account he gave to Sean Hannity on Fox News on Monday night was the one who, in turn, broke the news to his father. At the time, father and son were in Trump Tower in Manhattan, where the former president is preparing to be deposed in a civil lawsuit relating to his company’s financial bookkeeping brought by New York state.
Eric Trump portrayed the search to Hannity in terms as lurid as those deployed by his father. “They started ransacking an office, ransacking a closet,” he said. “They broke into a safe! He didn’t have anything in the safe.”
More details will have to emerge before Eric Trump’s description can be assessed for accuracy. It will also take time for a full picture to be gleaned of the FBI’s reasoning behind its actions, and whether or not that meets the exceptionally high bar needed to justify the first such raid on the residence of a former president in US history.
Within hours of the news erupting, Trump, his family and inner circle, and a slew of top Republicans across the country had begun assailing the Biden administration and what they called the “weaponized Department of Justice” for trying to thwart another presidential bid by Trump in 2024. Several prominent conservatives likened the search to the actions of a tinpot dictator.
Barely 18 months after the violent insurrection at the US Capitol following Trump’s claims of a stolen 2020 election, rampant claims by leading Republicans that the justice department is using its formidable powers to interfere in the 2024 presidential election could also be incendiary. On Monday night a crowd of angry Trump supporters gathered outside the Palm Beach club in a taste of what might come.
The search warrant granted to the FBI relates to official records, and to the ongoing investigation into whether Trump violated the Presidential Records Act. The provision requires the White House to preserve all paperwork and digital output resulting from official business and to send it for safe storage to the National Archives.
The fact that the FBI sought a search warrant rather than a subpoena implies that it did not trust Trump to hand over or preserve official documents in his possession.
It has been known for some time that Trump has a vexed relationship with official documents. As far back as June 2018 Politico was reporting that White House staff were forced to sift through “large piles of shredded paper” and painstakingly tape them back together.
In a strange coincidence of timing, just hours before the raid began Axios released photographs obtained by the New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman that appeared to show a White House toilet clogged with wads of handwritten paper. Trump was fingered as the flusher.
The FBI’s document bust itself stems back to January, when it was revealed that following protests Trump had returned 15 boxes of documents, gifts and letters to the National Archives. The following month the head of the archive, David Ferriero, told Congress that the boxes included some “classified national security information”, and that as a result his staff had “been in communication with the Department of Justice”.
Asha Rangappa, a former FBI special agent, pointed out that in such a well-trafficked location popular with well-connected international visitors as Mar-a-Lago, the presence of unsecured classified documents would present “an ongoing national security threat”. That might help explain the DoJ’s willingness to take such a dramatic and unprecedented step.
The Miami Herald reported the FBI’s search warrant indicated that “dozens of boxes” of alleged classified materials – in addition to the 15 already returned – were thought to still be stored at Trump’s Palm Beach residence. According to CNN, the extra boxes had been identified in June when DoJ investigators travelled to Mar-a-Lago to meet with two of Trump’s lawyers to discuss potentially classified material.
At the start of the meeting, Trump paid a visit and chatted to the investigators but without answering questions. His lawyers then took the DoJ officials down to a basement where boxes of documents were being stored; one source told CNN that some of the documents were stamped “top secret”.
At the heart of the detective work that will now be done on the boxes carted away from Mar-a-Lago is the question that would need to be answered before the DoJ launched any formal prosecution – was Trump intentionally in breach of official records laws?
In the course of the 2016 presidential election, Trump accused Hillary Clinton to her face of “acid washing” or “bleaching” 33,000 emails. He threatened to have the justice department appoint a special prosecutor to look into the matter, while his rallies were regularly filled with the chant of his supporters: “Lock her up! Lock her up!”.
In the end, the DoJ decided not to prosecute Clinton because it found no evidence of intent on her part. A similar calculation is likely to be critical as investigators move forward – under federal law anyone who removes classified information to an unauthorized location faces fines or imprisonment for up to five years, but only if they can be shown to have done so “knowingly” and with “intent”.