Millions of words have been written about former President Donald Trump, but few may prove as consequential for the man, or the country, as seven pages of federal code citations and document inventories that make up the Mar-a-Lago search warrant.
The Justice Department’s warrant and two critical supporting memos were first leaked, then officially unsealed by a federal judge in Florida on Friday afternoon, four days after FBI agents had gone through Trump’s residence in search of materials he was thought to have removed improperly from the White House.
The importance of what they found remains to be seen. But the warrant — remarkable in its execution and publication — sheds considerable light on an investigation that had seemed to take a back seat to the inquiry into Trump’s actions on the day of the Capitol riot, Jan. 6, 2021, and leading up to that.
Here are key takeaways from the latest developments:
The Justice Department is investigating violations of the Espionage Act.
Before Friday, the department’s probe into Trump’s removal of potentially sensitive materials was believed to focus on infractions stemming from his nonchalant, even defiant, treatment of presidential documents.
That was serious enough: The warrant cited obstruction of justice as one of the potential crimes justifying the search, and the possible mishandling of government records was listed as the second potential charge.
But it was the third possible violation that made news. Prosecutors cited Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 793, better known as the Espionage Act, which outlaws the unauthorized retention of national security information that could harm the United States or aid a foreign adversary.
People close to Trump downplayed the inclusion of the act, saying the department was elevating a legal scrap over possession of the former president’s papers and other keepsakes into something more dire for political purposes.
But inclusion of the espionage statute changes the tenor of the investigation. Several provisions in the law could apply to Trump’s case, particularly if he were found to be grossly negligent in storing sensitive materials, or to have known that the information could harm U.S. interests, according to Mary McCord, a former top official in the Justice Department’s national security division.
And prosecutors could argue that documents kept illegally at Mar-a-Lago violate the act, regardless of whether Trump pronounced them unclassified before leaving office.
The big question: Why did Trump hoard government documents?
The National Archives, along with the Justice Department, has been trying to get Trump to turn over reams of government document material for months.
They retrieved 15 boxes of documents from Mar-a-Lago in 2021, and prosecutors wrangled with the former president’s lawyers over the issue for much of the summer before deciding to request a search warrant.
They found a lot of stuff — 11 sets of documents in all, including some marked as “classified/TS/SCI,” shorthand for “top secret/sensitive compartmented information,” according to the report. Agents collected four sets of top secret documents, three sets of secret documents and three sets of confidential documents. Included in the manifest were also files pertaining to the pardon of Roger Stone, a longtime associate of Trump’s, and material about President Emmanuel Macron of France.
So, why did Trump keep all of these things in his private residence?
People close to the president say it was part of his pattern of collecting keepsakes. His office at Trump Tower was so crammed with memorabilia, including Shaquille O’Neal’s gargantuan sneakers, that visitors had to edge their way inside to avoid knocking down a knickknack. His critics see more sinister potential motives, rooted in his cozy relationships with authoritarian leaders.
Merrick Garland had the right to remain silent. Not anymore.
Few public figures have been so vocal about keeping quiet as Garland, the attorney general, who takes great pains to explain why he cannot talk more about the Jan. 6 investigation, or other matters involving Trump.
But his decision to address the public Thursday, to request the unsealing of the warrant, marked a break in his pattern. Garland, facing withering pressure to explain the rationale for the first search of a former president’s home, said he was now free to speak on the matter only because Trump had broken the news himself.
But he also cited the broader “public interest” in coming forward — and he made a point of saying he had personally signed off on the search warrant. For a man who seldom discloses process details outside of what is included in the department’s legal filings, this was a big deal.
By doing so, Garland was hoping to strike a delicate balance between public disclosure and prosecutorial discretion that has eluded others who have overseen investigations of Trump.
But he has now created the expectation that he will address the public when other searing questions arise about the department’s conduct.