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Redacted pages from the affidavit by the FBI in support of obtaining a search warrant for former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart ordered the Justice Department to make public a redacted version of the affidavit it relied on when federal agents searched Trump's estate to look for classified documents.Jon Elswick/The Associated Press

Donald Trump stashed at least 184 classified documents, including 25 containing some of the U.S.’s most sensitive state secrets, at his Florida estate after leaving office, a newly released affidavit reveals.

The FBI is investigating the former president for obstruction after he failed to turn over the records to the National Archives for more than a year, the court filing says, in addition to previously disclosed probes of whether he broke U.S. laws on espionage and the handling of government documents.

Judge Bruce Reinhart on Friday ordered the release of the affidavit the FBI used to obtain a search warrant for Mar-a-Lago this month. The document, requested by several media outlets, was heavily redacted to remove identifying details about witnesses co-operating with the probe.

It sheds new light on the size and scope of what Mr. Trump is accused of taking from the White House.

In January, eight months after a request from the National Archives, he handed over 15 boxes of papers. Investigators found 25 documents inside marked “top secret,” the highest level of classification, 92 marked “secret” and 67 marked “confidential,” the affidavit says. The documents contained national defence information, including foreign intelligence. Some had Mr. Trump’s handwritten notes on them.

The FBI search subsequently turned up more than 20 additional boxes and several binders of documents, previously released court filings said, including more classified information.

In a statement on his Truth Social platform, Mr. Trump accused the FBI and Department of Justice of “a total public relations subterfuge,” said Judge Reinhart had “animosity and hatred of your favourite President, me,” and denied obstructing the investigation: “WE GAVE THEM MUCH.”

As the ex-president faces a criminal probe into his handling of sensitive material, here is what to know.

Will Trump be charged?

Possibly. The search warrant and affidavit indicate that the FBI is investigating potential breaches of several different laws. One is the 1917 Espionage Act, which makes it a crime to reveal government secrets; two others ban concealing or destroying government documents. The maximum penalties range from three to 20 years in prison. The FBI is also looking into whether Mr. Trump deliberately obstructed them.

A letter from the national archivist, Debra Steidel Wall, to Mr. Trump’s lawyers last spring indicates that investigators are trying to determine both “whether those records were handled in an unlawful manner” and whether there was any “damage” to national security. One concern, for instance, is that classified information getting out could threaten the lives of confidential intelligence sources abroad.

High-ranking officials, such as former CIA director David Petraeus and ex-national security adviser Sandy Berger, have been convicted over the years of illegally taking classified documents home.

Lindsay Rodman, an expert in national security law at George Washington University, said rules around government records are technically very stringent. But it is hard to guess whether Mr. Trump will be prosecuted because there are so many factors other than the law alone. The former president is girding for a potential comeback run in 2024, and some of his supporters have threatened violent retaliation for the search.

“I would not lump this case in with anything previous, because the politics are so relevant,” Prof. Rodman said.

What are Trump’s legal arguments?

Mr. Trump maintains that he declassified the documents he took to Mar-a-Lago and that the papers may be covered by executive privilege.

Lisa Kern Griffin, an expert in federal criminal law and the constitution, said it would be up to the current president, Joe Biden, to assert executive privilege over the documents, which he has not. Even if Mr. Trump declassified all of the papers, an assertion for which he has not provided evidence, it wouldn’t matter legally, she said. The laws in question also apply to unclassified documents.

“While absurd on their face, both of these arguments are also irrelevant,” said Prof. Griffin, who teaches law at Duke University.

It also augurs poorly for Mr. Trump that the federal government had been asking for the documents for more than a year, but he didn’t turn them all over voluntarily. The National Archives made its initial request in May, 2021, and received the 15 boxes in January of this year. But the FBI says there were still more unreturned classified papers at Mar-a-Lago when it carried out the search this month.

“Given what we know now about the nature of volume of the documents, the national security implications are significant,” Prof. Griffin said. “Given all the correspondence, including subpoenas, the intent to commit a crime is also obvious.”

Mr. Biden on Friday mocked Mr. Trump’s defence. “‘I just want you to know, I’ve declassified everything in the world,’” he said outside the White House. “Come on.”

What’s happening in court now?

Mr. Trump has gone to court in a bid to stop, or at least delay, the FBI from reviewing the documents. In a filing, his lawyers have asked for a judicial official called a “special master” to review the papers and decide whether any are covered by executive privilege or solicitor-client privilege, or outside the scope of the search warrant.

The former president tried something similar earlier this year, when he asked the archives to refuse the FBI access to documents until his lawyers could review them and decide if he would invoke executive privilege. Ms. Wall rejected the request, contending that it made no sense to withhold government documents from the government itself.

What are the documents exactly?

For the most part, we only have a general sense.

The affidavit says the papers include “sensitive compartmented information,” including “human source” and “signals” intelligence – in other words, intel received from monitoring foreign communications and speaking with informants. It also says some of the documents’ content is defence-related.

The Washington Post, citing unnamed sources, reported that some of the documents related to nuclear weapons. Others were affectionate letters to Mr. Trump from North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. An earlier court filing said the FBI retrieved a copy of Mr. Trump’s pardon of political operative Roger Stone, as well as unspecified “Info re: President of France.”

The affidavit says that the classified documents were intermingled with piles of other papers, including newspapers, photos and Mr. Trump’s correspondence. “Of most significant concern was that highly classified records were unfoldered, intermixed with other records,” it said.

The nature of the documents, and what Mr. Trump was doing with them, may factor into the Justice Department’s decision on charging. When the FBI investigated Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server, then-director James Comey found that she had been “extremely careless” in discussing classified information over non-government e-mail, but opted not to lay charges after finding little sensitive information in the e-mails.

“There were records that were not well-handled, but there was not a lot of particular significance,” Prof. Rodman said.

In Mr. Trump’s case, the affidavit says the documents were believed to have been kept in several places around Mar-a-Lago, including “the 45 Office,” a room called Pine Hall, a storage facility and Mr. Trump’s residential suite.

How is it playing politically?

Mr. Trump is already using the search to burnish his claims that the government is out to get him, and rally support ahead of an expected bid for the party’s presidential nomination in two years.

“He’s out of office, people should leave him alone,” Lane Urban, a 26-year-old Trump supporter in Cheyenne, Wyo., told The Globe and Mail the day after the search. “Nobody’s perfect. Every time you make a mistake, does the FBI come after you?”

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