Politics

How Does the FBI Break Into a Safe?

In Trump’s case, a lot depends on whether he bought a cheap one.

A slightly ajar grey box safe with two knobs on a red background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by farakos/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

When former President Donald Trump shared the news Monday night that the FBI had raided his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, his statement contained one particularly intriguing detail amid the expected complaints about corruption and prosecutorial misconduct: “They even broke into my safe!”

While we can’t know for sure that the FBI did indeed break into Trump’s safe—the agency has not confirmed the details of Trump’s account—the notion made speculation irresistible. What kinds of things could Trump have hidden away in a locked safe? Is it possible he was hiding some of the classified documents the FBI was reportedly looking into?

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The reality is we don’t know. Eric Trump, speaking on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show Monday night, insisted that Trump “didn’t even have anything in the safe.” The network, citing a “source familiar” with the events, also reported that there was “nothing in it.”

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Still, the elder Trump’s dramatic-sounding claim left us with another question: How exactly does the FBI break into a safe?

According to experts, the answer depends on what kind of safe Trump had. All we know on that front is that the same Fox report said it was a “relatively new” safe. A former Trump staffer told Olivia Nuzzi at New York magazine that they had at one point seen a safe that had been pulled out from Trump’s bedroom or office during a renovation. “It wasn’t like a huge one from old western movies,” the source told her. “I don’t know, black? Silver? I saw it for a second, it registered in my brain, and I was on my way.”

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According to Charlie Santore, a Los Angeles-based safe technician whom the Atlantic once deemed “the safecracker of last resort,” there are hundreds of safe manufacturers making thousands of different kinds of safes. We don’t even know for sure whether Trump was referring to a safe or a vault.

But what we can do is speculate. “When places are getting raided, a lot of times they’ll acquiesce, and they’ll open it,” Santore said. “The safe might get damaged, so they weigh: If it’s a $20,000 safe—or in some cases, they’re $100,000 luxury safes—somebody’s going to get into it anyway, whether they drill in or not.”

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Santore guessed that, whatever make he had, Trump’s safe would probably be expensive. Not everyone agrees. “Knowing Trump, I’m sure it’s a cheap, imported piece of junk, all glitzed out in imitation 23.5 carat fools gold to at least LOOK expensive,” Dave McOmie, a professional safecracker famous in the industry for handling difficult cases, wrote in an email. “Such safes almost fall open when stared at by a working pro.” (McOmie’s own C.V. includes prying open the vault where Prince kept his unreleased recordings following the pop artist’s death.)

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Santore’s best guess is that when the FBI arrived, an employee at the site made a phone call and was told to just open the safe to save the expense. Trump may have simply exaggerated when he talked about “breaking into” the safe. But then again, maybe not: “Maybe they said, ‘No, fuck you, drill it open. We’re not opening it for you.’ I don’t know,” Santore mused. “With the personalities involved, who knows.”

Fox News did report a “safe cracker” was brought in and “cracked” the safe. So assuming the FBI did have to forcefully break the safe open, there are a few ways it could have gone. “Safes are often drilled open, which sounds more invasive than it is,” Santore said. “It’s usually like arthroscopic surgery. There’s different weak points in different locks.”

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Safes can also be pried open with the right force. Or, if the lock was electronic, Santore said, certain law enforcement agencies have high-tech tools that can open the locks quickly and without damage. (Explosives, he said, are pretty much only for fictional movie heists.)

There is another major difference between a law enforcement operation and a standard safe-cracking: Regular technicians typically try not to damage safes. The FBI, on the other hand, may not care about anything other than acting quickly and safely retrieving the contents. So while a technician might use an auto-dialer for a client—a process that could take a dozen hours or so—the FBI is more likely to have used a heavy-duty coring saw and simply cut the side of the safe off.

“That’s usually done to cause as much damage as possible,” Santore said. “That wouldn’t surprise me if they did a heavy-handed approach in this instance because of how tense everything has been.”

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