Aug 26, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Here's what we know and don't know about the Mar-a-Lago inquiry

Image: Justice Department

The 38 pages released Friday by the Justice Department gives the American public a much more detailed understanding of why the FBI felt an imperative to search former President Trump's residence at Mar-a-Lago and retrieve documents — but there's still a lot we don't know.

The big picture: At least half of the affidavit and exhibits that paved the way for that now-infamous search warrant remain blacked out.

Why it matters: Even the partial details extinguish any argument that the FBI was on a fishing expedition or a goose chase. Agents had detailed information about what they might find and why not going in for it could jeopardize national security.

What we don't yet know: Who on the inside worked with the feds? Who else saw or touched these documents while they were unsecured? Will Donald Trump ultimately be charged with a misdemeanor, a felony or no charge at all?

What we're watching: There’s been a shift in Trumpworld over the last few days with regard to the search, particularly after conservative John Solomon published a May 10 letter from the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) revealing the extent of the materials Trump took with him, and how those documents were of the highest level of classification.

  • Many Trump allies have grown quiet after initially leaning hard into their criticism of the search.
  • There’s now a renewed weariness that has seeped into the private conversations among Trump advisers and those in Trump's orbit as more of these facts are released to the public, adding to a growing feeling there was justification for the search.

What we know

The boxes: 14 of the 15 boxes retrieved from Trump earlier this year by the National Archives and Record Administration contained 184 documents with classification markings, including several with "handwritten notes." Of those documents...

  • 25 were marked as "top secret"
  • 92 were marked as "secret"
  • 67 were marked as "confidential"
  • The DOJ was particularly concerned that "highly classified records were unfoldered, intermixed with other records, and otherwise unproperly [sic] identified."

Probable cause: The affidavit suggests that some of the documents had highly classified government information and others had information related to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

  • The FBI also identified documents containing classification markings that appear to contain national defense information, which "were stored at the PREMISES in an unauthorized location," per the 38-page affidavit.
  • "There is also probable cause to believe that evidence of obstruction will be found," per the affidavit.
  • "Probable cause exists to believe that evidence, contraband, fruits of crime, or other items illegally possessed ... will be found at the PREMISES," per the affidavit.
  • Plus, "there is probable cause to believe that additional documents that contain classified NDI or that are Presidential records subject to record retention requirements currently remain at the PREMISES," per the affidavit.

Redactions: The DOJ outlines prosecutors' reasoning for withholding parts of the affidavit, saying that there are "a number of civilian witnesses, in addition to law enforcement personnel," involved in the investigation.

  • The redactions were necessary to “protect the safety and privacy of a significant number of civilian witnesses, in addition to law enforcement personnel, as well as to protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation and to avoid disclosure of grand jury material."

What we don’t know

Who obstructed justice, and who are the many corroborating witnesses?

How many people were aware of this, and who else might be involved who DOJ is interested in interviewing?

How were the classified materials mishandled and transferred?

What do the surveillance tapes from Mar-a-Lago show? Who had access to these materials?

The nature and contents of the documents that Trump took with him.

  • The DOJ and NARA say they believe the information Trump possessed and still possesses could jeopardize the Biden administration and U.S. intelligence from carrying out its work.

The breadth of the DOJ’s investigation.

  • This is an ongoing investigation, and just one part of their broader inquiry into Trump's activities in the final days of his administration and after he left office.

The biggest question of all: Could this search ultimately lead to an indictment of Trump and his closest aides?

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