Top secret documents found at Donald Trump’s Florida home were “likely concealed” to obstruct an FBI probe into the former president’s potential mishandling of classified materials, the Department of Justice said in an explosive new court filing.
The filing released late Tuesday provides the most detailed account yet of a year-and-a-half long effort to recover hundreds of classified documents that were improperly taken to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate when he left office in January 2021.
And the claim of obstruction piles further legal pressure on the Republican former president—who denies all wrongdoing and has denounced an unprecedented FBI raid on his palatial home this month as part of a “witchhunt.”
Trump’s legal team responded Wednesday with a filing that described the government’s pursuit of the documents as “unjustified,” said the former president’s possession of sensitive information “should have never been cause for alarm,” and described the raid as "unprecedented, unnecessary, and legally unsupported."
The August 8 raid was triggered by a review of “highly classified” records that Trump finally surrendered to authorities in January this year—after months of back and forth with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
The Justice Department began investigating the matter after the 15 boxes were found to contain national defense information, including 184 documents marked as confidential, secret or top secret, a government affidavit showed.
After prompting from the FBI, Trump’s lawyer would eventually turn over an additional 38 classified documents—and provide “sworn certification” that they represented the last of the material.
But it did not stop there: the FBI went on to uncover “multiple sources of evidence” showing classified documents remained at Mar-a-Lago, the new filing says.
When agents conducted their court-ordered search, they found material so sensitive that “even the FBI counterintelligence personnel and DOJ attorneys conducting the review required additional clearances before they were permitted to review certain documents,” it says.
Strikingly, the filing included a photograph of color-coded documents spread out over a carpet, marked “SECRET” and “TOP SECRET.”
Now, as the filing made clear, prosecutors are seeking to determine whether Trump or anyone in his immediate orbit acted criminally to prevent federal agents from retrieving classified documents.
It cited “evidence that government records were likely concealed and removed from the Storage Room (at Trump’s estate) and that efforts were likely taken to obstruct the government’s investigation.”
Trump hit back at the photo’s release in a post on his Truth Social network.
“Terrible the way the FBI, during the Raid of Mar-a-Lago, threw documents haphazardly all over the floor (perhaps pretending it was me that did it!), and then started taking pictures of them for the public to see,” he wrote.
‘Significantly harm’ government interest
During the raid, the Tuesday filing says, agents found more than 100 documents with classification markings—taking the total number of secret documents recovered from the former president to more than 300.
Trump, who is weighing another White House run in 2024, has accused the Justice Department under Democratic President Joe Biden of pursuing a vendetta against him, and said the judge “should never have allowed the break-in of my home.”
The former president has taken legal action to seek the appointment of an independent party, or “special master,” to screen the seized files for materials protected by personal privilege.
The government argues that naming a special master, potentially blocking investigators’ access to the seized documents, “would significantly harm important governmental interests, including national security interests.”
In their response on Wednesday, Trump’s lawyers again insisted on the appointment of a special master.
“Assuring access by (Trump’s) counsel to the seized materials, sharing an actual (detailed) inventory, making independent attorney-client privilege assessments, and making executive privilege determinations are all responsibilities that are best served by appointment of a special master,” they wrote.
The Mar-a-Lago search warrant, personally approved by Attorney General Merrick Garland, was based on suspicions of violations of the US Espionage Act related to the illegal retention of sensitive defense documents, on suspicion of obstruction, and of illegal destruction of government documents.
Democratic congressman Adam Schiff, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said the actions outlined in the brief were “reckless in the extreme” and showed “deliberate” deception.
In addition to investigations in New York into his business practices, Trump faces legal scrutiny for his efforts to overturn results of the 2020 election, and for the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol by his supporters.
Trump was impeached for a historic second time by the House of Representatives after the Capitol riot—he was charged with inciting an insurrection—but was acquitted by the Senate.