The seizure of classified US government documents from Donald Trump’s sprawling Mar-a-Lago retreat highlights the lingering national security concerns presented by the former president, and the house he called the Winter White House, security experts say.
Trump is under federal investigation for possible violations of the Espionage Act, making it illegal to spy for another country or mishandle US defense information, including sharing it with people not authorized to receive it, a search warrant shows .
As president, Trump sometimes shared information, regardless of its sensitivity. Early in his presidency, he spontaneously gave highly classified information to Russia’s foreign minister about a planned Islamic State operation while he was in the Oval Office, US officials said at the time.
But it was in Mar-a-Lago, where well-to-do members and people attended weddings and frolic about fundraising dinners on a breezy ocean patio, that US intelligence appeared to be in particular danger. While the Secret Service provided physical security for the venue while Trump was president and after, they are not responsible for vetting guests or members.
The Justice Department’s search warrant raises national security concerns, former DOJ official Mary McCord said.
“They clearly thought it was very serious to get these materials back into the secure area,” McCord said.
“Even keeping highly classified documents in inappropriate storage — especially considering Mar-a-Lago, the foreign visitors there, and others who may have ties to foreign governments and foreign agents — poses a significant threat to national security.”
Trump said in a statement on his social media platform that the records had been “all declassified” and placed in “secure storage”.
However, McCord said she saw no “plausible argument that he made a conscious decision about any of these to release them before he left”. After he left office, she said, he did not have the authority to release any information.
Monday’s seizure by FBI agents of multiple sets of documents and dozens of boxes, including US defense information and a reference to the “French president,” poses a terrifying scenario for intelligence professionals.
“It’s a nightmarish environment for careful handling of highly classified information,” said a former US intelligence officer. “It’s just a nightmare.”
The DOJ did not provide specific information about how or where the documents and photos were stored, but the club’s general vulnerabilities are well documented.
In one high-profile example, in 2017, Trump huddled with then-Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, at an outdoor dining table, while nearby guests hung out, listened and snapped photos that they later posted to Twitter.
The dinner was disrupted by a North Korean missile test, and guests listened as Trump and Abe worked out what to say. After making a statement, Trump dropped by at a wedding party at the club.
“What we saw was that Trump was so lax on security that he had a sensitive meeting on a potential war topic for non-US officials to observe and photograph,” said Mark Zaid, a lawyer who specializes in national security affairs.
“It would have been easy for someone to also have had a device that heard and recorded whatever Trump said.”
White House officials have set up a secure room in Mar-a-Lago for sensitive discussions. There, Trump decided in April 2017 to launch airstrikes on Syria for the use of chemical weapons.
After the decision was made, Trump recovered to dinner with visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping. Over a chocolate cake dessert, Trump briefed Xi about the airstrikes.
In 2019, a Chinese woman who passed security checks at the club with a thumb drive encrypted with “malicious” software was arrested for trespassing on trespassing and making false statements to officials, authorities said at the time.
Then-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly launched an effort to try to restrict access to Trump in Mar-a-Lago, but the effort failed when Trump refused to cooperate, aides said at the time.