It comes just hours after Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Department of Justice had asked a federal judge in Florida to unseal the search warrant following a barrage of criticism from the former president and many Republicans.
Classified documents relating to nuclear weapons were among the items that the FBI was looking for during their search of Mr Trump’s mansion on Monday, people familiar with the investigation told The Washington Post.
“Experts in classified information said the unusual search underscores deep concern among government officials about the types of information they thought could be located at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club and potentially in danger of falling into the wrong hands,” the newspaper reported on Thursday night.
The sources did not tell the newspaper if the documents were related to weapons that belong to the United States or any other nation, or if such documents were found by agents. The Department of Justice and FBI declined to comment to the newspaper.
“If that is true, it would suggest that material residing unlawfully at Mar-a-Lago may have been classified at the highest classification level,” said David Laufman, the former chief of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence section told the Post.
“If the FBI and the Department of Justice believed there were top secret materials still at Mar-a-Lago, that would lend itself to greater ‘hair-on-fire’ motivation to recover that material as quickly as possible.”
The revelation adds a new layer of seriousness to the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago less than a week ago. Up until now, Republicans had an avenue to argue that this was a politicised move meant to embarrass an ex-president over an issue that would normally be low in priority. That ends with the knowledge that nuclear secrets are likely involved; many Republicans on Capitol Hill, even allies of the former president, will be hard-pressed to give a good explanation for why documents about the nuclear capabilities of the US or another country could be stored at Mar-a-Lago under any acceptable circumstances.
It also raises the stakes for the Justice Department; if the revelation is true, the agency will be under significant pressure to act and punish the person responsible for the improper removal of nuclear-related documents.
Such secrets, if they specifically relate to US capabilities, would escalate the situation to a potential violation of the Espionage Act. The World War I-era law typically deals with the theft of information on behalf of a third pary, but also deals with the improper removal and storage of any document detailing US defensive capabilities.
Earlier on Thursday Mr Garland confirmed that he personally approved the decision to ask a judge to grant a search warrant for Mr Trump’s property, and said the department did not take lightly the decision to search a former president’s home.
“Where possible it is standard practice to seek less intrusive means as an alternative to a search and to narrowly scope any search that is undertaken,” he said, adding that the information he had just revealed was “all [he] can say right now”.
“More information will be made available in the appropriate way and at the appropriate time,” he said.
Mr Garland also condemned the attacks on FBI agents by Mr Trump and his allies in the days since the search of his property became public knowledge.
Mr Trump has falsely described the search of his home as an “attack” by an “army” of FBI agents, and both he and his attorneys have claimed without evidence that FBI agents could have used the access the warrant granted them to plant evidence on his property.
It also came on the same day that law enforcement killed an armed man who had threatened the Cincinnato FBI field office. Ricky Shiffer, 42, was fatally shot after police tried to negotiate a peaceful end to the incident.