Former President Donald J. Trump said on Monday that the FBI searched his home in Palm Beach, Florida, and opened a safe – a story signaling a major escalation in the various investigations into the final stages of his presidency. .
The search, according to several people familiar with the investigation, appeared to focus on equipment Mr Trump brought with him to Mar-a-Lago, his private club and residence, when he left the White House. These boxes contained many pages of classified documentsaccording to someone familiar with their content.
Mr. Trump delayed for months the return of 15 boxes of documents requested by National Archives officials, only doing so when there was a threat of action to recover them. The case was referred to the Department of Justice by the records earlier this year.
The research marked the latest remarkable turn in long-running investigations into Mr Trump’s actions before, during and after his presidency – and even as he weighs announcing another White House bid.
It came as the Justice Department stepped up its separate investigation into Mr Trump’s efforts to stay in power after his defeat at the polls in the 2020 election and the former president also faces an investigation accelerated criminal proceedings in Georgia and civil suits in New York. .
Mr Trump has long cast the FBI as a tool of Democrats out to get him, and the research sparked a furious backlash among his supporters in the Republican Party and on the far right of US politics. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader in the House, suggested he intended to investigate Attorney General Merrick B. Garland if Republicans took control of the House in November.
The FBI should have convinced a judge that there was probable cause that a crime had been committed, and that agents could find evidence at Mar-a-Lago, to obtain a search warrant. Pursuing a search of the home of a former president would almost surely have required the approval of senior officials in the office and the Justice Department.
The search, however, does not mean prosecutors have determined Mr. Trump committed a crime.
An FBI representative declined to comment, as did Justice Department officials. FBI Director Christopher A. Wray was appointed by Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump was in the New York area at the time of the search. “Another day in paradise,” he said Monday night during a call-in rally for Sarah Palin, who is running for a congressional seat in Alaska.
Eric Trump, one of his sons, told Fox News he was the one who informed his father the search was taking place, and he said the search warrant was tied to presidential documents.
Mr Trump, who campaigned for the presidency in 2016 criticizing Hillary Clinton’s practice of maintaining a private email server for government-related messages while she was secretary of state, was known throughout of his mandate to tear up official documents intended to be kept for the presidential election. archives. A person familiar with his habits said it included classified material that was shredded in his room and elsewhere.
The search was at least partly aimed at determining whether there were any remaining recordings at the club, said a person familiar with it. It took place on Monday morning, the person said, although Mr. Trump said officers were still there several hours later.
“After working and cooperating with the appropriate government agencies, this unannounced raid on my home was neither necessary nor appropriate,” Mr. Trump said, saying it was an effort to stop him from getting lost. run for president in 2024. “Such aggression could only take place in broken Third World countries.
“They even broke into my safe!” he wrote.
Mr Trump did not share any details about what the FBI agents said they were looking for.
Aides to President Biden said they were stunned by the development and learned about it on Twitter.
The search came as the Justice Department also stepped up questioning of former Trump aides who had witnessed White House discussions and planning of Mr Trump’s efforts to reverse his election defeat.
Mr. Trump has been the subject of questioning by federal prosecutors as part of a scheme to send “fake” voters to Congress for Electoral College certification. The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol is also continuing its work and interviewing witnesses this week.
The law governing the retention of White House records, the Presidential Records Act, lacks teeth, but criminal laws can come into play, especially in the case of classified records.
The criminal codes, which carry prison sentences, can be used to prosecute anyone “willfully injuring or committing depredation against any property of the United States” and anyone “willfully and unlawfully concealing, removing, mutilating, deleting, or destroying” government documents.
Samuel R. Berger, national security adviser to President Bill Clinton, pleaded guilty in 2015 to a misdemeanor charge for removing classified material from a government archive. In 2007, Donald Keyser, an Asia expert and former senior State Department official, was sentenced to prison after he admitted to having more than 3,000 sensitive documents – ranging from classified to top secret – in his basement.
In 1999, the CIA announced that it had suspended the security clearance of its former director, John M. Deutch, after concluding that he mishandled national secrets on a desktop computer at home.
In January this year, the archives recovered 15 boxes that Mr. Trump had taken with him to Mar-a-Lago from the White House residence at the end of his term. The boxes contained material subject to the Presidential Archives Act, which requires that all documents and records relating to official business be turned over to the archives.
Items in the boxes included documents, souvenirs, gifts and letters. The archives did not describe the classified material they found, except to say it was “classified national security information”.
Because the National Archives “identified classified information in the boxes,” the agency “has been in communication with the Department of Justice,” David S. Ferriero, the National Archivist, told Congress at the time. .
Federal prosecutors then began a grand jury investigation, according to two people informed on the subject. Prosecutors issued a subpoena earlier this year to the archives to obtain the boxes of classified documents, according to the two people familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the ongoing investigation.
Authorities also made interview requests to people who worked at the White House in the final days of Mr. Trump’s presidency, according to one of the people.
In the spring, a small coterie of federal agents traveled to Mar-a-Lago in search of some documents, according to a person familiar with the meeting. At least one of the agents was involved in counterintelligence, depending on the person.
The question of how Mr. Trump handled the sensitive papers and documents he received as president has arisen throughout his time in the White House, and beyond.
He was known to tear up pieces of official paper handed to him, forcing officials to glue them back together. And a forthcoming book by a New York Times reporter reveals that staffers would find clumps of torn paper clogging the toiletand thought he had thrown them in.
The question of how Mr. Trump handled classified documents is complicated because as president he had the power to declassify any government information. It is not known whether Mr. Trump, before leaving office, had declassified documents that the archives had discovered in the boxes. Under federal law, he no longer retains the ability to declassify documents after leaving office.
During his tenure, he repeatedly invoked the power to declassify information as his administration publicly released documents that helped him politically, particularly on issues such as investigating his campaign’s ties to Russia.
Towards the end of the administration, Mr. Trump pulled photos that intrigued him from the President’s Daily Brief – a collection of often classified information about potential national security threats – but it is unclear whether he took them. taken to the residence with him. In a stark example of how he handled classified documents, Mr Trump in 2019 took a highly classified spy satellite image of an Iranian missile launch site, declassified it and then posted the photo on Twitter.
Earlier this year, Kash Patel, a former senior Defense Department official and Trump loyalist whom Mr. Trump named as one of his representatives to engage with the National Archives, suggested to the right-wing website Breitbart that Mr. Trump had declassified the documents before. leaving the White House and that the proper markings just hadn’t been fitted.
“Trump declassified entire sets of documents in anticipation of his departure from government that he thought the American public should have the right to read for themselves,” he said, according to Breitbart.
Local television crews showed Mr Trump supporters gathering near Mar-a-Lago, some of them being aggressive towards reporters.
Mr. Trump made clear in his statement that he saw potential political value in the research, which some of his advisers echoed, depending on what any investigation produces.
His political team began sending out fundraising requests for the research late Monday night.
jonathan martin, Luke Broadwater and Thrush Glenn contributed report.