Former President Donald Trump is downplaying what the FBI found in their search on Monday from his South Florida residence and members-only club, denouncing as “a hoax” media reports that authorities were seeking documents on nuclear weapons and other top-secret topics.
“The nuclear weapons problem is a hoax,” Trump posted on Truth Social on Friday morning.
But if the FBI, the Justice Department and an independent federal judge are to be believed, Trump could be in serious legal trouble, including what they allege are possible violations of the US Espionage Act.
“The fact that the search was based on evidence of crimes committed under the Espionage Act is hugely important,” said Ryan Goodman, an expert on national security law and a former special prosecutor for the Department of Defense.
“It suggests that the Justice Department was given no choice but to act,” he added.
What happened on Friday: DOJ Search Warrant Shows Trump Under Investigation In Relation To Espionage Statute
Wine tourism, gastronomy, golf and secrets
According to order and receipt From what authorities seized, Trump is being investigated for possibly violating three federal laws: removal or destruction of records, obstructing an investigation, and violating the Espionage Act.
That doesn’t mean investigators believe Trump is a spy. The legal predicate that forms part of the Espionage Act, 18 USC §§ 793, refers to “gathering, transmitting, or losing defense information.”
J. William Leonard, former head of the Office of Information Security Oversight at the US National Archives. defense.
As a result, the investigation is more likely to focus on the careless handling of classified information and whether Trump’s actions facilitated foreign spies’ access to top-secret US information, Leonard told USA TODAY.
“The real problem is that there was very sensitive information that is protected by law, and government officials, including an independent judge, believed that information was at significant risk, necessitating this unprecedented action,” he said.
Top secret information, especially “SCI” special access programs defined as Sensitive Shared Information, according to US classification policies, are the most sensitive US government documents. US national security
Documents are classified as top secret if the disclosure of the information contained in them could cause Harm or “serious” harm to the national security of the USaccording to US intelligence agency classification policies.
What makes the documents in question a potential national security risk, Leonard said, is that the FBI recovered them from Mar-a-Lago, a sprawling resort with a notoriously laid-back vibe, where club members and their guests drank and dined, played golf, and attended big events like weddings and New Year’s Eve parties.
Wedding Crashers: Trump crashes Nashville socialite’s wedding at Mar-a-Lago
‘If Mr Putin had a commercial hotel’
Some of the boxes of documents at Mar-a-Lago were kept in a basement storage room with only a padlock on the door, Leonard noted, citing Trump’s own remarks. Instead, they’re supposed to be in the National Archives, he said, in a secure location akin to Fort Knox, where no one can access them without high levels of clearance and approval.
“Who knows who might have had access to it? I guarantee you that there are foreign intelligence services that have targeted that place,” Leonard told USA TODAY.
“Imagine if Mr. (Vladimir) Putin had a commercial hotel establishment on the Black Sea somewhere, where he would let anybody come in and have private events and things like that,” said Leonard, who left the National Archives in 2008. . “You don’t think the US intelligence services would be all over themselves trying to break into that site?”
Leonard and others noted that several people have been detained at or near Mar-a-Lago in recent years. including two Chinese women who were arrested for invading the facility in separate incidents in 2019. The FBI and the Justice Department have long warned that Chinese agents are in the United States seeking whatever information they can get.
In April 2019, federal authorities said they were reviewing whether then-President Trump private compound was vulnerable to foreign espionagesaid a person familiar with the matter. The disclosure of that investigation followed the arrest of Yujing Zhang, a Chinese national, who arrived at the retreat Trump referred to as his Winter White House with two passports, four cell phones and a USB drive that investigators say was infected. with malware.
Incident in April 2019: Woman with 2 passports, malware arrested at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida
Incident in December 2019: Jury finds Chinese citizen not guilty of invading Mar-a-Lago: ‘An honest mistake’
According to the search warrant, revealed Friday afternoon, Trump is also suspected of violating a law against the destruction or tampering with classified documents, raising the possibility that he may also be under investigation for felony obstruction of justice by destroying or tampering with those documents. .
A reluctance to accuse, but perhaps not because of the Espionage Act.
But it’s the possible violations of the Espionage Act that give it particular urgency, experts told USA TODAY.
Goodman, the former Defense Department special counsel, told USA TODAY that based on his reading of the search warrant unsealed Friday, “the documents Trump kept in a highly insecure environment involved intelligence so vital that it could threaten the national security of the United States if it fell into the wrong hands.
“The Justice Department may be reluctant to indict a former president in general,” Goodman added, “but not if his actions involve the most serious crimes on the statute books. It’s hard to think of a more serious crime than rape. of the Espionage Law.
What is the Espionage Law?: What to know, from the modification of the Sedition Law to declassified documents.
Specifically, the order authorizing federal agents to search Mar-a-Lago shows that authorities searched a variety of highly sensitive documents, including 11 caches of classified materials. A receipt for what authorities took from the Palm Beach complex confirms that agents recovered those documents and they ranged from confidential to secret to top secret in nature.
The search warrant documents did not go into detail about what authorities believe is in those boxes, but a Washington Post report, citing officials familiar with the investigation, he said some of them involved US nuclear weapons programs..
Citation before search
But the other two statutes cited in the search warrant are also serious, legal experts said. One of them, 18 US Code § 1519, involves the “destruction, alteration, or falsification of records in federal investigations and bankruptcy.” That indicates authorities presented the judge who authorized the warrant with compelling evidence, sufficient to establish probable cause, that the documents at Mar-a-Lago were tampered with in some way, either before or after the FBI said that I wanted to access them.
Last Monday’s search was not the first time the Justice Department has sought access to the records.
In a brief press conference on Thursday, Attorney General Merrick Garland revealed that the Justice Department two months earlier had notified a subpoena seeking confidential government documents that investigators believed the former president had stored there after his White House term ended.
Much remains unknown about the FBI’s search at Mar-a-Lago and the broader Justice Department investigation, which appears to have been underway for many months.
An affidavit filed in support of the search warrant application, which remains sealed, would contain a much fuller description of what authorities are looking for and why they believe not only crimes have been committed, but evidence of crime may be found. those crimes in Mar.-a-Lago, according to David Laufman, who led the Department of Justice’s Export Control and Counterintelligence Section until 2018. In that role, Laufman oversaw the investigation and prosecution of cases involving national security, including the mishandling of classified documents.
In a sign of how seriously the Justice Department is taking this investigation, Laufman’s successor in that key position, Jay Bratt, has been at the forefront of the effort to recover the documents.
Laufman told USA TODAY that the FBI and Department of Justice would never have gotten a judge to approve his search warrant request without ample evidence of the crimes committed and the continuing threats to US national security.
“The government executes search warrants when it is concerned that there is evidence of a crime that it needs to obtain in order to follow further logical investigative steps while protecting the integrity of that evidence,” Laufman said.
He also pointed out how risky Mar-a-Lago is as a location for such high-level American secrets.
“And when (classified information) is out in the wild, where it’s available to people who don’t have security clearance, who don’t have any legal right to see classified information, it’s in particular danger of being compromised,” Laufman said. he said.
There is also a possible time factor, including whether a target might destroy evidence or try to hinder an investigation, Laufman said.
“There are a lot of variables.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Violations of the Espionage Act carry great risk for Trump