Mayhem at Mar-a-Lago

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Donald Trump may no longer be president, but it seems his name is in the news just as frequently as during his term. Between the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021, and now the finding of classified documents at his Palm Beach club, Mar-a-Lago, it seems that Trump cannot escape from scandal. So what has been happening at Mar-a-Lago in the past few months? Let’s dive into the details with some help from HeinOnline.

photo of Mar-a-Lago club
Mar-a-Lago

Documents MIA

According to the Presidential Records Act,[1]To amend title 44 to insure the preservation of and public access to the official records of the President, and for other purposes., Public Law 95-591, 95 Congress. 92 Stat. 2523 (1978). This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Statutes … Continue reading passed in 1978, all presidents are required to turn over all presidential records to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) at the end of their term. According to the law: “The United States shall reserve and retain complete ownership, possession, and control of Presidential records…,”[2]To amend title 44 to insure the preservation of and public access to the official records of the President, and for other purposes., Public Law 95-591, 95 Congress. 92 Stat. 2523 (1978). This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Statutes … Continue reading meaning that these records do not belong to the president, but rather to the federal government.

screenshot of excerpt from Presidential Records Act

After Trump’s administration supposedly turned over the records to NARA, there was a little problem: documents were missing. So, in May 2021, Trump was asked to turn over the remaining records from his term. In January 2022, NARA received 15 boxes of presidential records[3]Affidavit in Support of an Application under Rule 41 for a Warrant to Search and Seize: In the Matter of the Search of: Locations within the Premises to Be Searched in Attachment A (2022). This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. … Continue reading that Trump had stored at Mar-a-Lago—14 of those boxes contained classified documents.

The Investigation Begins

In February, NARA brought in the FBI, referring them to open an investigation into Mar-a-Lago[4]Affidavit in Support of an Application under Rule 41 for a Warrant to Search and Seize: In the Matter of the Search of: Locations within the Premises to Be Searched in Attachment A (2022). This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. … Continue reading based on the concern that the classified presidential records returned to them had a) been unproperly identified, b) were not secure in folders, and c) were mixed in with other documents.[5]Affidavit in Support of an Application under Rule 41 for a Warrant to Search and Seize: In the Matter of the Search of: Locations within the Premises to Be Searched in Attachment A (2022). This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. … Continue reading Over the following few months, the government would repeatedly request the remaining materials from Trump, with Trump’s lawyers repeatedly asking for extensions. In May, the Justice Department issued a grand jury subpoena for the additional records.

On June 3, 2022, three FBI agents and a Department of Justice attorney made their way to Mar-a-Lago, where they were provided with one envelope containing additional classified documents and were assured that all documents requested in the subpoena were included and that they had all been kept in a storage room, not in private areas of the home. The Justice Department requested that this storage room be kept secure until further notice.[6]Affidavit in Support of an Application under Rule 41 for a Warrant to Search and Seize: In the Matter of the Search of: Locations within the Premises to Be Searched in Attachment A (2022). This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. … Continue reading

The Raid

On August 8, 2022, the FBI executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, where they removed additional boxes of records from both the previously mentioned storage room, as well as Trump’s personal quarters[7]Affidavit in Support of an Application under Rule 41 for a Warrant to Search and Seize: In the Matter of the Search of: Locations within the Premises to Be Searched in Attachment A (2022). This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. … Continue reading at the club. The redacted affidavit to justify the search warrant[8]Affidavit in Support of an Application under Rule 41 for a Warrant to Search and Seize: In the Matter of the Search of: Locations within the Premises to Be Searched in Attachment A (2022). This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. … Continue reading was released on August 26.

screenshot of excerpt from "AFFIDAVIT IN SUPPORT OF AN APPLICATION UNDER RULE 41 FOR A WARRANT TO SEARCH AND SEIZE"

On September 2, a detailed list of the property seized from Mar-a-Lago was released. This included:

  • More than 100,000 documents
  • 33 boxes of records (seven of which were located in Trump’s office, not the storage room)
  • Around 100 documents labeled as classified, secret, or top secret. Some documents were so classified that officials required additional clearance in order to review them.
  • 48 empty folders labeled classified—the location of the documents that were in those folders is currently unknown

At the time of the raid, Trump was at Trump Tower in New York City. At a recent rally in Wilkes-Barre, PA, on September 3, he gave a nearly 2-hour speech claiming that the search was “one of the most shocking abuses of power by any administration,” and that “the Mar-a-Lago raid was a desperate effort to distract from Joe Biden’s record of misery and failure.” Trump also posted on social media, “The political Hacks and Thugs had no right under the Presidential Records Act to storm Mar-a-Lago and steal everything in sight, including Passports and privileged documents.” In addition to the raid, the Justice Department submitted a photo in a court filing last month, which showed the seized documents spread out across the floor. Trump’s team stated the photo had been staged “for dramatic effect” to imply carelessness with the records.

Trump and his allies have also claimed that he had a “standing order” to declassify documents removed from the Oval Office. A Congressional Research Service report,[9]1 1 (August 12, 2022) Protection of Classified Information: The Legal Framework. This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Documents database. issued on August 12, includes details as to what the law says about the protection of classified information. Check out our recent blog post for more details on this.

Obstruction of Justice?

In addition to the fact that unauthorized removal of classified documents is a federal crime,[10]Affidavit in Support of an Application under Rule 41 for a Warrant to Search and Seize: In the Matter of the Search of: Locations within the Premises to Be Searched in Attachment A (2022). This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. … Continue reading there is also now the question of whether or not Trump’s legal team criminally obstructed the investigation when his lawyers misled officials as to whether or not there were still remaining records at Mar-a-Lago. The obstruction of justice decision could have a deciding factor in whether or not charges will be filed—perhaps not against Trump himself, but against his attorneys. Trump is also being investigated for violations of the Espionage Act.[11]To punish acts of interference with the foreign relations, the neutrality, and the foreign commerce of the United States, to punish espionage, and better to enforce the criminal laws of the United States, and for other purposes., Public Law 65-24 / … Continue reading

screenshot of excerpt from "AFFIDAVIT IN SUPPORT OF AN APPLICATION UNDER RULE 41 FOR A WARRANT TO SEARCH AND SEIZE" under heading "STATUTORY AUTHORITY AND DEFINITIONS"

Throughout the investigation, Trump has requested the appointment of a special master, or an independent third party, to review the records that were seized in the raid, and on Monday, September 5, federal judge Aileen Cannon (who had been appointed by Trump) authorized this appointment and blocked the Department of Justice from investigating the seized material until the examination is complete. The DOJ has opposed this appointment from the start based on the fact that Trump never had a right to the records, and the fear that the review will delay the investigation further. It remains to be seen what the examination will uncover, and whether or not charges will be filed. Trump has also recently hinted that he may campaign for the 2024 presidency, and his ability to do so could also hinge on the outcomes of the investigation.

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HeinOnline Sources

HeinOnline Sources
1, 2 To amend title 44 to insure the preservation of and public access to the official records of the President, and for other purposes., Public Law 95-591, 95 Congress. 92 Stat. 2523 (1978). This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Statutes at Large database.
3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10 Affidavit in Support of an Application under Rule 41 for a Warrant to Search and Seize: In the Matter of the Search of: Locations within the Premises to Be Searched in Attachment A (2022). This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Presidential Library.
9 1 1 (August 12, 2022) Protection of Classified Information: The Legal Framework. This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Documents database.
11 To punish acts of interference with the foreign relations, the neutrality, and the foreign commerce of the United States, to punish espionage, and better to enforce the criminal laws of the United States, and for other purposes., Public Law 65-24 / Chapter 30, 65 Congress. 40 Stat. 217 (1917). This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Statutes at Large database.
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