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Trump's relentless attacks on Mar-a-Lago search lack context. What he said vs. what we know.

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 8/19/2022 Bart Jansen, USA TODAY
Trump_statements_MAL_Topper © Photos: AP, Photoillustration: Javier Zarracina/USA Today Trump_statements_MAL_Topper

WASHINGTON – Donald Trump has blasted the Aug. 8 search of his Florida estate by questioning the justification for the unprecedented action at a former president’s home, criticizing how the FBI carried it out and questioning what was taken from Mar-a-Lago.

Since then, Trump has made a number of statements through social media posts on his website Truth Social and through public statements that often lack context and facts that rebut his own allegations. 

Below we looked at what Trump said and offered important information. But first, here are some basic facts about the search:

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  • A judge in Florida signed off on the search warrant: U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart signed off on the search warrant allowing the FBI to look for evidence of criminal violations of the Espionage Act, mishandling defense documents and obstruction of justice.
  • FBI agents recovered classified documents: The FBI reported finding 11 sets of classified documents marked “secret” or “top secret,” along with other records representing potential violations of the Presidential Records Act. But specific details about what was collected haven't been revealed.
  • Trump said the search was politically motivated: Trump called the search part of a partisan witch hunt conducted by the Justice Department. He said the search was unnecessary because he was cooperating with federal authorities and complained of agents rummaging through his belongings, which included collecting three passports that were later returned.
  • Garland defended his agency: But Attorney General Merrick Garland, who personally approved the search, defended the actions of Justice Department prosecutors and FBI agents.

Trump is using search in fundraising appeals: 'Can I count on you?' Trump revs up fundraising pitches after FBI's Mar-a-Lago search

Trump said there's 'no way' to justify search, but search warrant cites Espionage Act and other crimes

Trump post on Truth Social on Aug. 15:

Context:

U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart signed off on the FBI search warrant by finding probable cause the FBI would find evidence that three potential crimes were committed: improper handling of defense documents, obstruction of justice and possible violations of the Espionage Act.

Judges review warrants as a check on investigators who are required to present evidence they've already gathered to demonstrate what more evidence they hope to collect in a search. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which protects people from unreasonable searches, requires a description of the place to be searched and the items expected to be seized.

In Trump's case, the search warrant described Mar-a-Lago as a Palm Beach mansion with 58 bedrooms and 33 bathrooms on a 17-acre estate. The warrant called for a search of everywhere not occupied or rented by members of the club. The search sought documents that could serve as evidence, contraband, the fruits of a crime or items possessed illegally under the three statutes.

Trump had already run afoul of document regulations before the search. The National Archives and Records Administration obtained 15 boxes of presidential records that were being stored at Mar-a-Lago in February. Keeping the records at Mar-a-Lago violated the Presidential Records Act, which requires the government keep all forms of documents and communications related to a president's or vice president's official duties.

"As required by the Presidential Records Act the records should have been transferred to NARA from the White House at the end of the Trump Administration in January 2021,” the agency said in a statement. The documents included correspondence with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and a letter former President Barack Obama, according to news reports. Trump advisers denied "any nefarious intent" to the Washington Post and said the boxes contained "mementos, gifts, letters from world leaders and other correspondence."

Biden won the 2020 popular vote against Trump with nearly 81.3 million votes to 74.2 million votes, and the Electoral College vote with Biden's 306 votes besting Trump's 232 votes.

Trump: Search could translate into Republican wins in 2022 midterm elections

Trump post on Truth Social on Aug. 15:

Context:

Trump remains a dominant figure in Republican politics, with numerous candidates at the federal and state levels seeking his endorsement ahead congressional elections this fall. Eight of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump either retired or were defeated in primaries, after Rep. Liz Cheney’s loss in Wyoming on Aug. 16.

Democrats currently control both chambers of Congress and are trying to fend of Republicans, who want retake control of the House and Senate. 

But about 54.5% of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Trump, compared to about 41.5% with a favorable opinion through Aug. 11, according to an average of national polling by FiveThirtyEight.

The FBI took Trump's passports, but returned them

Trump post on Truth Social on Aug. 15:

Context:

The Justice Department offered to return the passports Tuesday after agents found they were unrelated to the search for classified documents. Two of the passports were expired and a diplomatic passport was active.

Trump said the search was unannounced. But he was subpoenaed 2 months ago and was notified beforehand.

Trump post on Truth Social on Aug. 14:

Context:

While the search was unprecedented for a former president, the Justice Department had been in contact with Trump about the documents for months. 

Trump was served a subpoena for sensitive government documents two months before the FBI executed the search. The subpoena followed a June visit to Mar-a-Lago by federal authorities. The Secret Service assisted the entry of federal authorities on both occasions. The FBI notified the Secret Service in advance of the search, which authorities said was not a “raid” because of the notification. Garland, called attacks against the FBI and Justice Department “unfounded.”

Trump, who appointed the FBI director, again criticizes the agency amid rising violence

Trump post on Truth Social on April 14:

Context:

FBI Director Christopher Wray, who Trump nominated when he was president, warned the Senate Judiciary Committee on Aug. 4 about rising violence driven by domestic grievances such as election disputes and the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the abortion-rights decision in Roe v. Wade.

"I feel like everyday I'm getting briefed on somebody throwing a molotov cocktail at someone for some issue," Wray told the committee. "It's crazy."

The warning came a week before an armed man tried to breach the FBI’s Cincinnati field office and was killed in the wake of the search.

Trump said protected documents were taken, but courts have rejected his privilege claims

Trump post on Truth Social on Aug. 14:

Context:

The Justice Department hasn’t revealed what documents were seized in the search, other than to say the materials included 11 sets of “secret” and “top secret” records. A subsequent court filing called some of the records “highly classified.”

Federal judges have rejected previous claims of attorney-client and executive privilege in investigations of Trump because the documents with attorneys didn't deal with actual trial preparation and because the investigations outweighed his claim to keep communications with aides confidential. 

President Joe Biden waived Trump’s claims of executive privilege for the House committee investigating the Capitol attack on Jan. 6, 2021, when it sought documents from the National Archives and Records Administration. When Trump tried to block the release in federal court, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Biden’s waiver outweighed Trump’s claim. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case, ruling the investigation was more important than the claim of executive privilege.

Trump said the search was unchecked. His lawyer was onsite and the FBI gave him a receipt of what was taken. 

Trump posts on Truth Social on Aug. 14:

Context:

Garland said Aug. 11 that copies of the warrant and FBI property receipt for what was collected during the search were provided to Trump’s lawyer, Christina Bobb, who was on site during the search. Bobb signed the receipt 6:19 p.m. on Aug. 8.

David Laufman, who headed the Justice Department’s counterintelligence section until 2018, told USA TODAY that having his successor Bratt leading the effort to retrieve the documents signals how serious the department is taking the investigation. Laufman said the FBI and Justice Department would have never gotten a judge to approve their application for a search warrant without ample evidence of crimes committed – and ongoing threats to U.S. national security.

“The government carries out search warrants when it becomes concerned that there is evidence of a crime that it needs to obtain in order to pursue additional logical investigative steps while protecting the integrity of that evidence,” Laufman said.

White House says Biden wasn't given heads up on Mar-a-Lago search. Trump says 'Does ANYBODY really believe that'?

Trump posts on Truth Social on Aug. 13: 

Context:

President Joe Biden was not informed before the FBI search of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, according to the White House. "No, the president was not briefed, was not aware of it,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a press briefing Aug. 9. “No one at the White House was given a heads up.”

In a 2021 directive restricting Justice Department communications with the White House, Garland said the department wouldn't alert the White House to "pending or contemplated criminal or law enforcement investigations or cases unless doing so is important for the performance of the president's duties and appropriate from a law enforcement perspective."

Trump said all documents were declassified, but the law says that might not be true

Trump posts on Truth Social on Aug. 12:

Context:

Constitutional powers authorizing a president to declassify documents don't apply to records classified as top-secret or higher because the information contained in them is usually protected by other federal laws designed to make sure it never falls into the wrong hands, according to experts. 

"Even if, in fact, what he represents has taken place, there still can be exceedingly sensitive information that is required by law to be protected from unauthorized disclosure," said J. William Leonard, the former head of the U.S. National Archives’ Information Security Oversight Office.

The National Archives and Records Administration retrieved 15 boxes of records from Mar-a-Lago in February, including correspondence with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The agency said the documents should have been given to the archives under the Presidential Records Act when Trump left office. Federal investigators returned to Mar-a-Lago in June to collect classified documents and urged using a better lock for the storage area where documents were held. A Trump lawyer signed a document saying all classified documents had been turned over at that point, according to the New York Times.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) issued a statement Aug. 12 stating the agency had “exclusive legal and physical custody of Obama Presidential records” when he left office in 2017.

“NARA moved approximately 30 million pages of unclassified records to a NARA facility in the Chicago area where they are maintained exclusively by NARA. Additionally, NARA maintains the classified Obama Presidential records in a NARA facility in the Washington, DC, area. As required by the (Presidential Records Act) former President Obama has no control over where and how NARA stores the Presidential records of his Administration.”

Report says FBI agents searched for nuclear weapons documents. Trump calls it a 'hoax.' 

Trump post on Truth Social on Aug. 12:

Context:

The Washington Post reported FBI agents were searching for documents related to nuclear weapons. But the search warrant doesn’t go into detail about the records sought. The Justice Department hasn’t described the documents collected.

Trump wants to release the search affidavit, but DOJ wants it sealed

Trump posts on Truth Social on Aug. 11:

Context:

A consortium of press and advocacy groups led by Judicial Watch filed a motion Aug. 10 to unseal the search warrant. The Palm Beach Post, part of the USA TODAY Network, joined the request Aug. 12. Judicial Watch filed the Trump statement in the court case saying he didn’t oppose the release of the warrant. The Justice Department also filed a motion unopposed to releasing the warrant, which U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart unsealed Aug. 12.

At a hearing Thursday, Reinhart ordered the Justice Department to propose redactions to the affidavit in anticipation of its potential release. Reinhart scheduled another hearing next week to rule on the redactions.

The lock 

Trump post on Truth Social on Aug. 10:

Context:

The New York Times reported that Jay Bratt, the Justice Department’s top counterintelligence official, sent a Trump lawyer, Evan Corcoran, an email after visiting June 3 that urged him to get a more secure padlock for a storage room for Trump documents and the Trump team complied. Bratt left that day with additional classified material, after Trump provided the National Archives with 15 boxes of administration records in February. A Trump lawyer signed a document June 3 saying all material marked classified had been turned over, the New York Times reported.

Trump announces search and attacks Hillary Clinton's emails. Investigation found violations.

Trump statement on Aug. 8:

Context:

Trump's initial statement confirmed the search and sparked days of speculation and allegations over what the FBI was looking for and what evidence would justify such an unprecedented action. Many Republicans initially came to Trump's defense while lawmakers from both sides called for more information about the search. 

A State Department internal investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's use of private email found violations by 38 people. The investigation determined that those people were "culpable" in 91 cases of sending classified information that ended up in Clinton's personal email, according to a letter sent to Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley in October 2019. Investigators found "no persuasive evidence of systemic, deliberate mishandling of classified information." However, it also made clear that Clinton's use of the private email had increased the vulnerability of classified information.

Former President Bill Clinton and his wife returned $28,000 worth of household items they received as gifts, but were intended for the White House rather than their personal use.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump's relentless attacks on Mar-a-Lago search lack context. What he said vs. what we know.

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