Takeaways from the Mar-a-Lago search affidavit: Classified material, confidential sources, Trump's retort

The affidavit gives insight into the origin and depth of the Justice Department’s investigation into Trump’s handling of sensitive documents.

Ella Lee
  • Highly classified information was found in boxes of documents recovered from Mar-a-Lago in January.
  • Mar-a-Lago was deemed not secure by Justice Department lawyers.
  • DOJ officials cited concern for witness and law enforcement safety as reasons for redacting the affidavit.

The redacted affidavit justifying the search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, made public on Friday, offers new insight into the origin and depth of the Justice Department’s investigation into the former president's handling of sensitive documents. 

“Although the public is now aware that the government executed a search warrant at the premises owned by the former President and seized documents marked as classified, the affidavit is replete with further details that would provide a roadmap for anyone intent on obstructing the investigation,” the newly unsealed documents read.

Here are the main takeaways from the affidavit.

Trump search affidavit:Unsecured storage, confidential documents and other revelations

This is an aerial view of former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate, on Aug. 10, 2022, in Palm Beach, Fla. Court papers show that the FBI recovered documents labeled “top secret” from former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

Highly classified material at Mar-a-Lago

Highly classified  information was included in 15 boxes of documents initially recovered from Trump’s Florida property in January, according to the affidavit. It was the discovery of those documents that spurred the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation into the handling of classified information and other presidential records by Trump and his staff. 

The affidavit for the search warrant lists 184 unique documents bearing classification markings, including 67 documents marked as “confidential,” 92 documents marked as “secret,” and 25 documents marked as “top secret.”

FBI agents also found markings that indicated some of the documents contained national defense information, and several of the documents contained what appeared to be Trump’s “handwritten notes,” the affidavit said.

“There is probable cause to believe that additional documents that contain classified (National Defense Information) or that are Presidential records subject to record retention requirements currently remain at the PREMISES,” the affidavit states. “There is also probable cause to believe that evidence of obstruction will be found at the PREMISES.”

Confidential human source information found

Among the documents retrieved from Mar-a-Lago in January were records relating to clandestine human sources – some of the most guarded information in U.S. intelligence

The records, marked as "HCS," are typically highly protected because it often indicates the material came from a person recruited by American intelligence who is typically a foreigner with access to another government’s intelligence, leadership and defense secrets, experts previously told USA TODAY.

Information in that category is usually locked away in highly secure government facilities, but instead was found mixed among Trump’s personal property at Mar-a-Lago, potentially endangering crucial sources of information. 

"You are talking about people's lives being at stake," said former federal prosecutor Sarah Krissoff.

Read the affidavit:Read the (redacted) document that supported the search of Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort

New alarms raised:Trump search affidavit reveals confidential source documents found at Mar-a-Lago

Mar-a-Lago not secure

Several rooms at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort where documents were stored – including the storage room, Trump’s residential suite Pine Hall and his office called the “45 Office” – were “not currently authorized locations for the storage of classified information" or national defense information, the affidavit states.

In June, Justice Department lawyers warned Trump’s legal team that the rooms holding sensitive material were not secure and should be made more impenetrable. 

“It appears that since the time classified documents were removed from the secure facilities at the White House and moved to Mar-a-Lago on or around January 20, 2021, they have not been handled in an appropriate manner or stored in an appropriate location,” reads the DOJ's June letter to Trump's attorneys.

"Accordingly, we ask that the room at Mar-a-Lago where the documents had been stored be secured and that all of the boxes that were moved from the White House to Mar-a-Lago (along with any other items in that room) be preserved in that room in their current condition until farther (sic) notice," the letter continues.

Redactions on redactions

The Mar-a-Lago search affidavit released Friday was heavily redacted, or edited retroactively, to remove confidential information and other details that could impede the investigation. Alongside the affidavit, the Justice Department released a document meant to explain its reasoning for leaving some details under seal. 

Most of the Justice Department's reasons for redacting the affidavit are themselves redacted. But DOJ officials cited deep concern for the safety of witnesses, law enforcement agents and uncharged parties in its continuing investigation of the former president’s handling of classified documents. 

“First and foremost, the government must protect the identity of witnesses at this stage of the investigation to ensure their safety,” Justice officials wrote. “As this Court noted, if information relating to witnesses were disclosed, it is likely that even witnesses who are not expressly named in the Affidavit would be quickly and broadly identified over social media and other communication channels, which could lead to them being harassed and intimidated."

The investigation’s strategy and scope and grand jury information were also cited as reasons to keep the affidavit at least partially sealed.

Redactions:Redacted affidavit justifying Trump Mar-a-Lago search released. Here's what was taken out.

Biden and Trump weigh in

Both the former president and current one on Friday offered public reactions to the investigation into Trump’s handling of sensitive documents. 

After the release of the Mar-a-Lago search affidavit, Trump blasted the Justice Department and U.S. Magistrate Bruce Reinhart, who ordered the revised affidavit’s release, for the “heavily redacted nature” of the document. 

“Affidavit heavily redacted!!! Nothing mentioned on ‘Nuclear,’ a total public relations subterfuge by the FBI & DOJ, or our close working relationship regarding document turnover - WE GAVE THEM MUCH,” he wrote on Truth Social, adding that Reinhart should not have allowed the search.

Trump's "nuclear" comment likely refers to a Washington Post article which said that the FBI searched for classified documents relating to nuclear weapons at Mar-a-Lago.

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden on Friday mocked his predecessor’s claim that he had the power to declassify national security documents without going through the formal process.

A president can declassify “everything in the world,” he said sarcastically when asked about Trump’s explanation for the hundreds of pages of classified material he had at his residence. Trump has said he had a standing order that automatically declassified any documents he took from the Oval Office into the private residence of the White House, but the long, detailed and precise process for declassifying information includes consulting with any agency with a stake in the information and documenting what has been changed.

“C’mon!” Biden added, noting he couldn’t comment further on the situation because he doesn’t know the details.

Contributing: Kevin Johnson, Kevin McCoy, Bart Jansen, Tami Abdollah, Maureen Groppe