Former President Trump had a shocking number of the government’s most highly sensitive secrets left unguarded at his Mar-a-Lago residence, including documents detailing U.S. nuclear weapons, defense vulnerabilities, and plans for a potential attack on Iran.
A Justice Department indictment unsealed earlier this month said Mr. Trump willfully retained national defense information or NDI. Unlike other government markets such as confidential or top secret, which can be declassified, it is illegal to possess NDI anywhere outside of a secure government facility. That’s because it shows military strengths and weaknesses as well as methods and sources for gathering that information.
Federal prosecutors don’t provide details of secrets contained in other classified documents, but their dates line up with key foreign policy moments of the Trump administration.
• A June 2020 document concerning the nuclear capabilities of a foreign country. Although the country is unnamed in the indictment it is widely believed to be Russia because the document is dated around the same time Moscow published its previously classified nuclear deterrence policy.
• A May 9, 2018 document detailing intelligence related to foreign countries. The date is the same day Mr. Trump gave a televised speech withdrawing the U.S. from the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal.
• A January 2020 document concerning the military options of a foreign country and its “potential effects on United States interests.” This document is from roughly the same time Iran launched ballistic missiles at an airbase in western Iraq, though it is unknown what the document detailed.
• A March 2020 document “concerning military operations against U.S. forces.” This document coincides with a Hezbollah attack on Camp Taji in Iraq, which killed two Americans and a British soldier. The U.S. and the United Kingdom struck back at Hezbollah with air raids.
Mr. Trump is charged with 37 federal counts, including 31 counts of willful retention of classified government documents. The other counts include making false statements to federal agents and obstruction of justice.
He has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.
“For something to be top secret, its disclosure has to cause extraordinarily grave harm to the U.S. and some of the 31 documents had even more sensitive markings,” said Jamil Jaffer, former senior counsel for the House Intelligence Committee.
Perhaps more stunning, he said, was the sensitive nature of the materials that were strewn about Mr. Trump’s residence and office at his private Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach.
“The fact that you have these documents in fairly open facilities where we know both American and foreign officials were traipsing around the property is extremely problematic,” said Mr. Jaffer.
In an audio recording leaked to CNN and aired on Tuesday, Mr. Trump acknowledges that he held on to a classified Pentagon document about a potential plan to attack Iran.
“These are the papers,” Mr. Trump says in the recording of a July 2021 interview he gave at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club to people working on a book about his former chief of staff, Mark Meadows.
Mr. Trump began talking about a plan by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley to attack Iran if necessary. A transcript of a portion of the conversation is included in the indictment.
“He said that I wanted to attack Iran, Isn’t it amazing?” Mr. Trump says of Mr. MIlley. “I have a big pile of papers, this thing just came up. Look. This was him. They presented me this — this is off the record but — they presented me this. This was him. This was the Defense Department and him.”
Mr. Trump later says: “As president, I could have declassified it. Now I can’t, you know, but this is still a secret.”
Materials found at Mar-a-Lago included signals intelligence, according to the indictment. That includes intercepted communications from foreign governments and data gathered from confidential human sources.
A tranche of documents was labeled SI/TK, which means its satellite imagery of foreign military operations.
Some of the markings on the documents indicate that they could only be shared with the so-called Five Eyes intelligence community, which includes the U.S., Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.K. That suggests that the information detailed in those materials didn’t originally come from U.S. intelligence sources.
Of the 31 documents listed in the indictment, ten were labeled as sensitive compartmented information (SCI), and another eight were marked as special access programs (SAP), meaning they are among the government’s most sensitive documents.
Only a small list of high-level government officials can access SCI and SAP materials and can only be viewed in a specialized facility for confidential materials.
In his 49-page indictment, special counsel Jack Smith underscored the national security implications of the documents found in Mr. Trump’s possession.
Mr. Smith wrote that the number of people who had knowledge of these documents would be “reasonably small and commensurate with the objective of providing enhanced protection for the information involved.”
“Only individuals with the appropriate security clearance and additional SAP permissions were authorized to have access to such national security information, which was subject to enhanced handling and storage requirements,” he wrote.
National security experts fear the haphazard storage of such critical materials could lead to the loss of irreplaceable sources and access that took years to become fruitful. The security breach could have a lasting impact on how the U.S. collects and shares data with its allies, they said.
“I have no doubt the national security agencies have been engaged in a damage assessment,” said Patrick Eddington, a senior fellow for homeland security and civil liberties at the CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank. “They need to know what they are dealing with and who the hell did Trump show this stuff to. If it was a foreign national or an American citizen with ties to foreign nationals, this could be a major problem.”
Mar-a-Lago has been the target of foreign intelligence.
A Chinese national was arrested in 2019 for trespassing and lying to authorities after being caught with a device that blocks electromagnetic signals, nine USB drives, five sim cards, and a signal detector to pick up the presence of hidden cameras.
She was the second Chinese national arrested for trespassing at Mar-a-Lago.
Mr. Eddington said the intelligence community is operating under the assumption that at least some of the classified information may have been compromised, and they are working to mitigate the fallout. That could mean the CIA or other agencies are ending programs, cutting loose human sources or removing them from their location for protection.
It’s possible that the Justice Department didn’t disclose all of the materials seized at Mar-a-Lago, because some of it was too sensitive to list in a court document.
The 31 documents detailed in the indictment may have been included because they were less sensitive than other materials discovered at Mar-a-Lago. Another possibility is that Mr. Trump lost or misplaced documents he brought to Mar-a-Lago.
Federal prosecutors in March issued a subpoena related to a classified Pentagon document about a potential attack on Iran. The subpoena was issued after prosecutors obtained the audio recording of Trump discussing it at Bedminster, New Jersey.
Mr. Trump’s attorneys responded by saying they couldn’t find it, underscoring the challenge of trying to retrieve the documents.
Mr. Smith’s team last year complained to a federal judge that they couldn’t be sure they recovered all of the documents with classified markings, even after the August 2022 FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago.
The highly-sensitive nature of the documents could create an uphill battle for Mr. Trump’s lawyer as they seek to acquit him on the charges.
“It ratchets up the seriousness of the case and gets right to the heart of the Espionage Act,” said Jared Carter, a constitutional law professor at Vermont Graduate and Law School. “The national defense information is so critical to the prosecution’s case and very damning to Trump’s defense.”