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FBI searches Trump safe at Mar-a-Lago Club, former president says

Former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida.  (Charles Trainor Jr.)
By Devlin Barrett,Mariana Alfaro,Josh Dawsey and Jacqueline Alemany Washington Post

Former president Donald Trump said Monday that the FBI had raided his Mar-a-Lago Club and searched his safe - activity related to an investigation into the potential mishandling of classified documents, according to a person familiar with the probe.

Such a move - a court-ordered search of Trump’s property to look for possible evidence of a crime - is deeply unusual for a former president. It represents a historic moment in Trump’s tortured relationship with the Justice Department, both in and out of the White House, and a new stage in a long-running investigation of whether documents, some of them top secret, were taken to Mar-a-Lago instead of sent to the National Archives when Trump left office.

“My beautiful home, Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, is currently under siege, raided, and occupied by a large group of FBI agents,” Trump said in a statement released through his political action committee, Save America.

The FBI declined to comment on whether it had conducted a search of the former president’s property.

A person familiar with the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss its details, said agents were conducting a court-authorized search as they probe the potential mishandling of classified documents that were shipped to Mar-a-Lago.

To take such a step would require approval at the highest levels of the Justice Department. A department spokeswoman declined to comment when asked whether Attorney General Merrick Garland approved the step.

Trump said the raid was “unannounced” and claimed it was not “necessary or appropriate.” The former president, without evidence, accused Democrats of weaponizing the “justice system” against him.

In a lengthy statement in which he equated the raid to Watergate, Trump accused the FBI of “even” breaking into his safe but provided no further details on what federal agents were looking for, or what else happened during their visit.

Trump nominated the current head of the FBI, Christopher Wray, to the position in 2017, after firing the previous FBI director, James Comey, amid a probe into whether any Trump campaign advisers had conspired with Russian operatives to influence the 2016 election.

Advisers said Trump was not at the club, which is closed in the hot months of Florida’s summer, when the search was conducted. The former president has spent much of the summer at Bedminster, his golf resort in New Jersey, but on Monday he was in New York, according to a person familiar with his whereabouts.

Trump’s team was given no heads-up about the search, several advisers said. Evan Corcoran, a lawyer representing Trump, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In January, the National Archives and Records Administration retrieved 15 boxes of documents and other items from Mar-a-Lago that Archives officials said should have been turned over when Trump left the White House.

Their action indicated there were questions about whether Trump violated the Presidential Records Act, which requires the preservation of memos, letters, notes, emails, faxes and other written communications related to a president’s official duties.

“The Presidential Records Act is critical to our democracy, in which the government is held accountable by the people,” Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero said in a statement in February.

At the time, Ferriero said in a statement that Trump representatives were “continuing to search” for additional records.

The inventory of unclassified items in the boxes that were already recovered from Mar-a-Lago is roughly 100 pages long, according to a person familiar with the unclassified inventory. Descriptions of items that were improperly taken to Mar-a-Lago include a cocktail napkin, a phone list, charts, slide decks, letters, memos, maps, talking points, a birthday dinner menu, schedules and more, according to this person.

There is a separate inventory for just the classified materials that were taken to the former president’s Florida residence, this person said. If the unclassified version of the classified inventory was organized in the same way as the inventory of non-classified items, it would be around three pages, according to this person.

“It’s important to note that volume is only one way to quantify the documents that were taken,” the person added. “But just one page - or one portion of highly sensitive information being improperly released can cause great national security harm.”

As for classification level, the ranges are from confidential to top secret to special handling categories, the person added.

Much is still unclear about investigators’ understanding of the case, or why they would conduct such a search many months after the 15 boxes of material was retrieved. A sitting president is the top classification authority in the government, giving that person far more leeway than most government employees in deciding what is and isn’t classified.

Advisers, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss Trump’s actions, have said that he mishandled documents for years, largely by ripping them up. They described an ad hoc packing process at the end of his term, in which Trump and his family took boxes of material that should have gone to the National Archives. The archives only learned some of the material was missing after it tried to locate items for cataloguing.

Trump advisers have denied any bad intent, saying the boxes contained mementos from his presidency.

The search of Trump’s home is the most aggressive to date by federal agents and prosecutors examining the conduct of the president and his inner circle of advisers.

Separate from the investigation into the handling of documents, a federal grand jury in Washington has been gathering information about efforts by Trump lawyers and advocates to try to use fake electors to block Joe Biden from formally becoming president after the 2020 election.

As part of that investigation, authorities have begun examining Trump’s actions, seeking to understand, at a minimum, what instructions he gave to subordinates, according to people familiar with the investigation.

Federal investigators are also working up from their criminal investigations of the hundreds of Trump supporters who took part in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot to see who, if anyone, tried to orchestrate violence to stop the formal congressional ceremony confirming Biden’s election victory.

It was not immediately clear on Monday whether the Justice Department has moved before to search the residence of a former president. In June 1975, Richard Nixon did meet behind closed doors with Watergate prosecutors and two grand jurors near his home in San Clemente, Calif. - 10 months after leaving the White House and after he was pardoned by his successor, President Gerald Ford.

Following lengthy negotiations, Nixon spent 11 hours over two days providing testimony to a federal grand jury investigating the Watergate break-in and coverup.