Could Donald Trump be investigated for violating Espionage Act?

Donald Trump (Official White House photo)

FBI agents seized classified records from Donald Trump’s home at Mar-a-Lago during the agency's unprecedented search of a former president's property on Monday, including some marked as top secret, according to a warrant and property receipt unsealed Friday.  

You can read the details of the warrant here. The warrant does not identify who is the target of this search, and it does not explicitly name Donald Trump. It does mention that the areas searched included "the '45 Office,' all storage rooms, and all other rooms or areas within the premises used or available to be used by FPOTUS and his staff and in which boxes or documents could be stored, including all structures or buildings on the estate."

The affidavit that supported the search warrant sought by the government has not been released. The affidavit likely would spell out the probable cause that compelled federal agents to search Mar-a-Lago. Affidavits are rarely made public before any formal charges are announced.

What is considered classified information?

The United States government has three levels of classification regarding the protection of information. The lowest level is "confidential," which is information that is considered damaging to U.S. national security. Next is the "secret" classification, or information that could cause "serious" damage if leaked. Lastly is what is considered "top secret," or information that could cause "exceptionally grave" damage to U.S. security.

Below are detailed descriptions from the United States Government Publishing Office (GPO) of the three classifications:

  • Confidential. Information may be classified "Confidential" if its unauthorized disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause damage to the national security. Except as otherwise provided by statute, no other terms shall be used to identify classified information. Terms or phrases such as "For Official Use Only" or "Limited Official Use" shall not be used to identify national security information. No other term or phrase shall be used in conjunction with these national security information designations, such as "Secret Sensitive" or "Agency Confidential" to identify national security information.
  • Secret. Information may be classified "Secret" if its unauthorized disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause serious damage to the national security. This classification should be used sparingly. Examples of "serious damage" include disruption of foreign relations significantly affecting the national security; significant impairment of a program or policy directly related to the national security; revelation of significant military plans or intelligence operations; and compromise of significant scientific or technological developments relating to national security.
  • Top Secret. Information may be classified "Top Secret" if its unauthorized disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security. This classification should be used with the utmost restraint. Examples of "exceptionally grave damage" include armed hostilities against the United States or its allies; disruption of foreign relations vitally affecting the national security; the compromise of vital national defense plans or complex cryptologic and communications intelligence systems; the revelation of sensitive intelligence operations; and the disclosure of scientific or technological developments vital to national security.

Trump has said the documents seized by agents were "all declassified," and argued that he would have turned them over to the Justice Department if asked. It was unclear, however, whether the documents had been declassified or whether he had the power to do so. Trump also kept possession of the documents despite multiple requests to turn them over in accordance with federal law, according to federal authorities.

What were FBI agents looking for at Mar-a-Lago?

According to a search warrant requested by the Department of Justice and approved by a federal magistrate judge, FBI agents entered Mar-a-Lago to look for "all physical documents and records constituting evidence, contraband, fruits of crime, or other items illegally possessed" which would be in violation of three United States laws:

What is the timeline of events leading up to FBI search of Trump’s home?

Here’s a look at how the monthslong investigation unfolded and the rapid drumbeat of what’s happened since:

  • Mid-January 2022: Fifteen boxes of presidential records are retrieved from Mar-a-Lago in a transfer arranged by the National Archives and Records Administration. The transfer came after a Trump representative told the agency in December 2021 that there were records in Florida nearly a year after he left office. The agency says that under federal law, all records have to be preserved, a process that is "critical to our democracy." Trump calls the discussions "collaborative and respectful" and says it was a "great honor" to work with the National Archives. His representatives told the agency they would keep looking for more presidential records.
  • Jan. 31, 2022: The agency says in a statement that some paper records from Trump’s time in office had been torn up by Trump. During his tenure in office, White House records management officials had recovered and taped together some torn-up presidential records and turned them over to the archives as he left office, along with other torn-up records that had not been reconstructed.
  • Feb. 18, 2022:  Classified information was found in the 15 boxes of White House records that had been stored at Mar-a-Lago, the National Archives and Records Administration says. The revelation came in a letter responding to a congressional oversight committee. It also confirmed that the matter had been sent to the Justice Department. Federal law bars removing classified documents to unauthorized locations, though Trump could argue that as president he was the ultimate authority on whether documents were classified. Trump, for his part, says the National Archives were given the requested presidential records "in an ordinary and routine process."
  • Feb. 25: The House Committee on Oversight and Reform seeks additional documents from the National Archives as part of its investigation into Trump’s handling of White House records. The committee chaired by Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York laid out a series of documents it needed to determine if the former president violated federal records laws when he took the boxes to Florida.
  • Spring 2022: Investigators from the Justice Department and FBI visit Mar-a-Lago to get more information about classified materials taken to Florida, according to a source familiar with the matter. Federal officials also served a subpoena for some documents believed to be at the estate.
  • Aug. 5: U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart in South Florida approves an application for a search warrant, finding the FBI had probable cause to search Mar-a-Lago. The search warrant is sealed, as is typical for any pending investigation. Attorney General Merrick Garland later says he personally approved the decision to seek the search warrant.
  • Aug 8: The FBI executes the search at Mar-a-Lago in an unprecedented escalation of law enforcement scrutiny of the former president. Trump wasn’t at the estate at the time, which was shuttered for the season, but disclosed the search in a fiery public statement. He asserted agents had opened up a safe at his home in what he called an "unannounced raid" that he likened to "prosecutorial misconduct." Trump and his allies cast the search as a "weaponization" of the criminal justice system aimed at keeping him from potentially winning another term if he formally decides to run for president in 2024. President Joe Biden’s White House said it had no prior knowledge of the search, and the current FBI director was originally appointed by Trump.
  • Aug. 10: The director of the FBI speaks out against a proliferation of threats and calls to arms in corners of the internet favored by right-wing extremists in the wake of the search. Speaking during a previously scheduled visit to the FBI field office in Omaha, Nebraska, Christopher Wray says the rhetoric targeting federal agents and the Justice Department is "deplorable and dangerous" and "violence against law enforcement is not the answer, no matter who you’re upset with."
  • Aug. 11: After days of public silence, Garland holds a brief news conference where he drops a major announcement: He will ask the court to unseal the search warrant, a striking and unusual step for a pending investigation. Garland said the public was entitled to know what prompted the extraordinary search at a former president’s home. Trump responds with a statement calling for the "immediate" release of the warrant. His lawyers do not immediately make public records they have that the government sought to unseal. Meanwhile, in Ohio, an armed man wearing body armor tries to breach a security screening area at an FBI field office. He fled and was later killed following a standoff with police. A law enforcement official briefed on the matter identified him as Ricky Shiffer and said he is believed to have been in Washington just before the attack on the Capitol and may have been there on Jan. 6.
  • Aug. 12: Judge Reinhart unseals the warrant that authorized the FBI to search Mar-a-Lago, along with court papers showing that agents recovered documents labeled "top secret" among 11 sets of classified records. The court papers did not provide specific details about the documents or what information they might contain.  The warrant details that federal agents were investigating potential violations of three federal laws, including one that governs gathering, transmitting, or losing defense information under the Espionage Act.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.