The FBI recovered documents that were labelled “top secret” from former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, according to court papers released on Friday after a federal judge unsealed the warrant that authorised the unprecedented search this week.
A property receipt unsealed by the court shows FBI agents took 11 sets of classified records from the estate during a search on Monday.
The seized records include some marked not only top secret but also “sensitive compartmented information”, a special category meant to protect the nation’s most important secrets that if revealed publicly could cause “exceptionally grave” damage to US interests.
The court records did not provide specific details about information the documents might contain.
The warrant says federal agents were investigating potential violations of three different federal laws, including one that governs gathering, transmitting or losing defence information under the Espionage Act.
The other statutes address the concealment, mutilation or removal of records and the destruction, alteration or falsification of records in federal investigations.
The property receipt also shows federal agents collected other potential presidential records, including the order pardoning Trump ally Roger Stone, a “leatherbound box of documents”, and information about the “president of France”.
A binder of photos, a handwritten note, “miscellaneous secret documents” and “miscellaneous confidential documents” were also seized in the search.
Mr Trump’s lawyer, Christina Bobb, who was present at Mar-a-Lago when the agents conducted the search, signed two property receipts – one that was two pages long and another that is a single page.
In a statement earlier Friday, Mr Trump claimed that the documents seized by agents were “all declassified”, and said he would have turned them over if the justice department had asked.
While incumbent presidents generally have the power to declassify information, that authority lapses as soon as they leave office and it was not clear if the documents in question have ever been declassified.
And even an incumbent’s powers to declassify may be limited regarding secrets dealing with nuclear weapons programmes, covert operations and operatives, and some data shared with allies.
Mr Trump kept possession of the documents despite many requests from agencies, including the National Archives, to turn over presidential records in accordance with federal law.
The Mar-a-Lago search warrant served on Monday was part of an ongoing justice department investigation into the discovery of classified White House records recovered from Mr Trump’s home earlier this year.
The Archives had asked the department to investigate after saying 15 boxes of records it retrieved from the estate included classified records.
It remains unclear whether the Justice Department moved forward with the warrant simply as a means to retrieve the records or as part of a wider criminal investigation.
Multiple federal laws govern the handling of classified information, with both criminal and civil penalties, as well as presidential records.
US magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart, the same judge who signed off on the search warrant, unsealed the warrant and property receipt on Friday at the request of the justice department after attorney general Merrick Garland said there was “substantial public interest in this matter”, and Mr Trump said he backed the warrant’s “immediate” release.
The justice department told the judge on Friday that Mr Trump’s lawyers did not object to the proposal to make it public.
In messages posted on his Truth Social platform, Mr Trump wrote: “Not only will I not oppose the release of documents … I am going a step further by encouraging the immediate release of those documents.”
The justice department’s request was striking because such warrants traditionally remain sealed during a pending investigation.
But the department appeared to recognise that its silence since the search had created a vacuum for bitter verbal attacks by Mr Trump and his allies, and felt that the public was entitled to the FBI’s side about what prompted Monday’s action at the former president’s home.
“The public’s clear and powerful interest in understanding what occurred under these circumstances weighs heavily in favour of unsealing,” said a motion filed in federal court in Florida on Thursday.
The information was released as Mr Trump prepares for another run for the White House. During his 2016 campaign, he pointed frequently to an FBI investigation into his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, over whether she mishandled classified information.
To obtain a search warrant, federal authorities must prove to a judge that probable cause exists to believe that a crime was committed.
Mr Garland said he personally approved the warrant, a decision he said the department did not take lightly given that standard practice where possible is to select less intrusive tactics than a search of one’s home.
In this case, according to a person familiar with the matter, there was substantial engagement with Trump and his representatives prior to the search warrant, including a subpoena for records and a visit to Mar-a-Lago a couple of months ago by FBI and Justice Department officials to assess how the documents were stored.
FBI and justice department policy cautions against discussing ongoing investigations, both to protect the integrity of the inquiries and to avoid unfairly maligning someone who is being scrutinised but is ultimately not charged.
That is especially true in the case of search warrants, where supporting court papers are routinely kept secret as the investigation proceeds.
In this case, though, Mr Garland cited the fact that Mr Trump himself had provided the first public confirmation of the FBI search, “as is his right”.
The attorney general also condemned verbal attacks on FBI and justice department personnel over the search.
Some Republican allies of Mr Trump have called for the FBI to be defunded. Large numbers of his supporters have called for the warrant to be released hoping they it will show that he was unfairly targeted.
“I will not stand by silently when their integrity is unfairly attacked,” Mr Garland said of federal law enforcement agents, calling them “dedicated, patriotic public servants”.