Politics

A Thorough but Frustrating Guide to Your Questions About What the FBI Might Have Found in Donald Trump’s House

We might never know. Sorry!

The words "Department of Justice" against a gray slate wall.
Justice is served!!! Potentially, and only after an interlude of indeterminate length. Getty Images

Donald Trump’s residence in Florida was raided by the FBI on Monday! That’s crazy.

Reactions are very frothy and “!!!!” across the political spectrum.

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Given that the raid happened one day ago, is it perhaps premature for everyone involved (except maybe Trump) to be freaking out so much? Let’s run through what we know—and what we don’t.

Why did the FBI raid Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago?

In January 2022, the National Archives (a so-called “independent” agency of the government) retrieved 15 boxes of materials that Trump had taken from the White House to Florida in apparent violation of rules regarding the preservation of presidential records. In February, the Archivist of the United States (fancy title!) wrote in a letter to the House Oversight Committee that some classified material was included in those boxes. The New York Times reported in May that a grand jury had begun investigating whether any of this material had been illegally “mishandled,” and further reported this week that Monday’s search, according to one source, “was at least in part for whether any records remained at the club.” An attorney representing Trump has told the press that agents carrying out the search seized an unspecified number of documents. The Wall Street Journal reports that “roughly 10 more boxes” were taken.

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Shouldn’t there be some sort of warrant that describes what the FBI was looking for and why that material might constitute evidence of a crime?

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Yes. At this point, Trump (or his representatives), the FBI, and the judge who approved the search would all have seen this document.

Do any of them have to release it?

No! At least, not until there’s some sort of indictment.

Classified material—that could be a lot of things, right? Satellite photos of Brazilian naval installations and whatnot? Not necessarily anything that incriminated Trump in any crime except putting classified material in a non-secure location?

Correct.

Is that kind of thing really worth raiding someone’s home over?

This is the big question. Keeping classified information in your possession after leaving your government job is unmistakably a crime, and there is precedent for prosecuting high-level officials who have done so. But if this were the only thing Trump was ever prosecuted for, it would be, as we say in the industry, “a bit of a snoozeburger.”

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So, what else might it be?

One thing that happened at the end of Donald Trump’s term, right before he moved to Mar-a-Lago with (apparently) some classified documents, was that he and a number of people close to him tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Many of the elements of that effort have become subject to congressional scrutiny and possible criminal prosecution. It stands to reason that some of the documents that Trump kept in his possession could be related to Jan. 6 and the buildup to it, and that those could incriminate him or someone else.

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If the FBI found evidence of other crimes besides classified-material mishandling in the material it seized, could Trump be prosecuted using that evidence? 

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Yes. In the words of former IRS criminal investigator Martin J. Sheil, “once the search warrant is approved and executed should evidence of other federal crimes be found that evidence can be used to prosecute additional crimes not just the criminal behavior alluded to in the affidavit.”

What other crimes could Trump have been involved in?

During his presidency and in the years prior, Trump has been formally accused (sometimes in civil court) or described in news reports as having possibly committed tax evasion, embezzled charitable donations, defrauded customers at his “University,” abetted money laundering, violated campaign finance laws to suppress evidence of a personal affair, communicated indirectly with Russian figures involved in the effort to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, obstructed justice in that case and others, and withheld weapons from Ukraine unless its government made unfounded accusations against Joe Biden. As mentioned, he also plotted a coup against the administration that was in the process of taking over from his own. There could be more that we are forgetting as well.

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Has anyone, even a source speaking anonymously to a reporter, said that documents related to Jan. 6 or other crimes were found or sought during Monday’s search?

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As far as we know of, no. The Wall Street Journal, citing “people familiar” with the investigation into the classified document issue, reported that “Monday’s search is separate from the [Department of Justice’s] Jan. 6 investigation.” It moreover reported, like the Times, that the search was carried out “in part” because of authorities’ belief that not all of the classified material in Trump’s possession had been turned over in January 2022.

That “in part” could mean a lot, huh?

Yes. Or a little! Maybe the other part is because they wanted to check some detail about storage conditions that Trump’s representatives had given them earlier. (CNN reports that federal officials met with Trump attorneys at Mar-a-Lago in June to discuss the classified-documents issue.) Who knows? Certainly not us, the public, at this point.

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Rudy Giuliani’s apartment was raided a while ago. He was also involved in the Jan. 6 case. What came of that?

Nothing, apparently. Last week NBC News reported that Giuliani, Trump’s former attorney, has been given back phones that were taken in that raid, which was related to his work on Trump’s behalf regarding Ukraine. NBC News further reported that he was unlikely to face charges.

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How long did it take to get to that outcome?

Giuliani’s apartment was raided in May 2021, so more than a year.

Aren’t there other Trump-associated people who have been subject to raids?

Yes, Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen had his office raided in 2018.

Right! Right right right. Seems like a bit of a problem for his legal team.

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That wasn’t phrased as a question, but yes.

Remind me, what happened there?

Cohen pled guilty to making illegal hush money payments on behalf of Trump during the 2016 campaign to women who Trump had reportedly had affairs with, directly implicating the then-president.

How long was it after the raid before we reached the outcome in that case?

Four months. But that’s because Cohen was a cooperating witness. It seems almost certain that Donald Trump very much will not be.

If the Department of Justice, of which the FBI is a part, ultimately decides not to prosecute Trump for mishandling documents or any other crime, do they have to explain what they found in the raid and why they decided not to prosecute?

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No.

Who’s the FBI director who ordered this escalation, anyway? Someone appointed by one of Trump’s political enemies?

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It is lifelong Republican and Donald Trump appointee Christopher Wray.

Is there any evidence the raid was politically motivated?

No.

Is this going to cause a backlash that leads to Trump’s election in 2024?

We find it unlikely. Polls, like this one from 2019 and this one from 2020 and this one from 2022, have found that if you ask Americans whether they think Trump did something criminal or unethical, a majority of them, sometimes as many as 60-plus percent, will say that he did. The electorate as a whole also already believes, by a wide margin, that he is not “honest and trustworthy.” Investigating Trump has typically been a politically safe thing to do, even if it does not always lead to a cathartic judgment of responsibility and a delicious reckoning with consequences.

What’s going to happen next in this case?

I don’t know.

Is that it?

[Is already on the porch cracking a cold Coors Light.]

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