Federal agents on Monday searched former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach, Florida, as part of a federal investigation into allegations he removed classified documents from the White House when he left office, two people familiar with the search said.
Trump did not say why the agents appeared to be at his Florida property but, in an emailed statement, added that "this unannounced raid on my home was not necessary or appropriate."
Trump is under investigation by the Justice Department for removing presidential records from the White House and storing them at Mar-a-Lago for up to a year, a potentially serious violation of the law if the records were classified. Trump has denounced that investigation, saying he was entitled to take the records.
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Trump also claimed that agents searched his safe, but did not elaborate. “They even broke into my safe,” he said in his statement.
Trump and many of his associates are also under scrutiny by the FBI, the Justice Department, the Internal Revenue Service and other federal and state agencies for alleged wrongdoing during his four-year administration and related to his various business entities.
Federal law enforcement officials had no immediate comment on whether agents were at Mar-a-Lago and if so, for what reason.
Searches and probable cause
Under the law, any search would need to be authorized by a judge after finding evidence of probable cause that a crime had been committed, “and that there's probable cause to believe that the evidence of the crime exists in the place to be searched,” said David Kelley, the former interim U.S. Attorney and deputy U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan.
“That a judge is making a finding of probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and there's evidence of that in the President's own safe, then that's pretty significant,” Kelley told USA TODAY.
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Kelley said legal protocol would be to wait for someone to open the safe, even if Trump had to designate a proxy to do so if he was not on the premises during the search.
“He’s saying that they broke into his safe. If they wanted to get into a safe and he wasn't worried about what's in it, why wouldn't he just say, ‘Okay, go ahead and go into my safe,’ ” asked Kelley.
The Justice Department declined to comment Monday.
FBI and 'unprecedented' raid
Speaking on FOX News, Trump's son, Eric, called the search "more political persecution of Donald J. Trump. They can't stand that Americans love him."
"The idea that the FBI or any other law enforcement agency is raiding a former president’s house is stunning, period, – and unprecedented. Even for Trump,” said Matthew Dallek, a longtime presidential historian who has written extensively on modern-era politics and presidents.
“If the FBI or any other federal agencies are raiding the former president’s home, I would presume it is for a very active criminal investigation, or investigations,” Dallek told USA TODAY. “The FBI raids homes typically for hardened criminals and mobsters. It is an iconic image dating back decades. If a former President’s home is surrounded by FBI or other federal agents, that is certainly an even more iconic image.”
The FBI notified the Secret Service in advance of the law enforcement action, indicating that they had a search warrant for the property, a person familiar with the action said.
The official who is not authorized to comment publicly said the Secret Service facilitated the FBI's entry to the property but did not participate in the search. The source did not characterize the law enforcement action as a raid, emphasizing that officials were notified in advance of the FBI's arrival.
As unprecedented as such action on a former president home is, Bradley P. Moss, a national security lawyer, said Trump’s handling of documents justified the search.
“No one, not even Donald Trump, is above the law,” he says. “Properly marked classified documents were taken to Mr. Trump’s personal residence after he left office and were stored in an unsecured manner for months. That is a clear violation of the law.”
Last month, it was disclosed that federal prosecutors had been questioning witnesses about the conduct of the former president as part of an inquiry into an effort to overturn the 2020 election, a person familiar with the matter said.
The action is part of a more aggressive review of attempts by the former president's allies to intervene in the election by substituting fake electors to tilt the vote in key states and to pressure former Vice President Mike Pence to block the certification of President Joe Biden's election.
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While the source said prosecutors have recently questioned witnesses about Trump, the person declined to describe the queries in detail.
DOJ approval of FBI raid
Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe told CNN on Monday night that the search warrant issued for Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence would have been “planned out and reevaluated and legally examined” at the highest levels of the FBI and Justice Department.
“I can't overemphasize how big of a deal this would have been within the Department of Justice and the FBI,” said McCabe. “This is not, you know, a couple of agents showing up at some judge’s door in the middle of the night to get an emergency warrant.”
“This is something that would have been planned out and reevaluated and legally examined from every possible angle by the entirety of the leadership structure (of) both organizations," he said.
In explaining the process of obtaining a federal search warrant, McCabe said any prosecutor would have to go before a judge “and convince that judge that there is probable cause to believe both that a federal crime has been committed, and that evidence of that crime is contained within the space you have described in your warrant request.”
McCabe, who is now a law enforcement analyst for CNN, was fired by Trump in 2018 shortly before he was planning to retire from the FBI. He charged the firing was politically motivated.
The examination of Trump's actions in the run-up to the Jan. 6 insurrection was first disclosed by The Washington Post, which cited four people familiar with the matter.
Garland on Trump and Jan. 6
Attorney General Merrick Garland, in a NBC News last month, did not exempt Trump from federal scrutiny in the Jan. 6 investigation, saying that federal prosecutors will pursue "anyone who was criminally responsible."
"We pursue justice without fear or favor," Garland told NBC when pressed on whether that could include Trump. "I'll say again that we will hold accountable anyone who is criminally responsible for attempting to interfere with the... legitimate, lawful transfer of power from one administration to the next."
“President Trump did not handle classified documents properly. I witnessed it,” former Trump White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham told USA TODAY. “I saw him on, I don’t know, how many occasions ripping up documents, throwing some on the floor, ripping some up and putting them in his pocket, not ripping some of them up and putting them in his pocket.”
Grisham watched Trump mishandle documents while they were on a plane together from Mar-a-Lago to Washington on their way to the Middle East.
“Those could have been classified, or maybe they weren't. I don't know," she said. "But it's still mishandling documents. Anything the president technically handles is considered sensitive.”
Last month, federal investigators searched the home of former assistant attorney general Jeffrey Clark, who drafted a letter to officials in six states to overturn their election results. And authorities seized the cellphone of John Eastman, one of Trump's personal lawyers who developed a scheme to have then-Vice President Pence singlehandedly reject electors from states Joe Biden won. Pence refused to carry out such a plan.
Pence's former chief of staff, Marc Short, has acknowledged that he had testified before a federal grand jury.
House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy accused the Justice Department of reaching "an intolerable state of weaponized politicization."
"When Republicans take back the House, we will conduct immediate oversight of this department, follow the facts, and leave no stone unturned," he tweeted. "Attorney General Garland, preserve your documents and clear your calendar."
Several former Trump officials appeared on FOX News to denounce the search as partisan and unwarranted.
"It's unfortunately crossed the Rubicon to some extent where previous administrations are now investigated ... by the next administration," Matthew Whitaker, former acting attorney general under Trump, told FOX News. "It's something (found) in a banana republic. It's not the United States of America."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump: FBI search his Mar-a-Lago home, open safe in documents probe