Trump Search Warrant Unsealed. Where’s the Affidavit?

Well, it’s happened: A search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence yielded numerous items, all of which are listed in the search warrant, which you can read here in all its glory.

If you still can’t make heads nor tails of this, it’s because all we have seen so far is the warrant, which lists the place to be searched and items to be sealed, and not the affidavit, in which law enforcement officers detail their probable cause for the judge. As explained here, for reasons involving the ongoing investigation, it is unlikely that we’ll actually see the affidavit before formal charges are brought, so speculation abounds. Nevertheless, there are some things we can learn from the warrant. Here’s the description of the items sought:

a. Any physical documents with classification markings, along with any containers/boxes (including any other contents) in which such documents are located, as well as any other containers/boxes that are collectively stored or found together with the aforementioned documents and containers/boxes;

b. Information, including communications in any form, regarding the retrieval, storage, or transmission of national defense information or classified material;

c. Any government and/or Presidential Records created between January 20, 2017, and January 20, 2021; or

d. Any evidence of the knowing alteration, destruction, or concealment of any government and/or Presidential Records, or of any documents with classification markings.

Contrast this with the three crimes listed in the warrant and you get a fuller picture of the suspicions against Trump. Here’s an excerpt from this New York Times story, which describes these federal laws:

The first law, Section 793 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code, is better known as the Espionage Act. It criminalizes the unauthorized retention or disclosure of information related to national defense that could be used to harm the United States or aid a foreign adversary. Each offense can carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.

Despite its name, the Espionage Act is not limited to instances of spying for a foreign power and is written in a way that broadly covers mishandling of security-related secrets. The government has frequently used it to prosecute officials who have leaked information to the news media for the purpose of whistle-blowing or otherwise informing the public, for example.

Importantly, Congress enacted the Espionage Act in 1917, during World War I — decades before President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order that created the modern classification system, under which documents can be deemed confidential, secret or top secret. The president is the ultimate arbiter of whether any of those classifications applies — or should be lifted.

As a result, while these classifications — especially top secret ones — can be good indicators that a document probably meets the standard of being “national defense information” covered by the Espionage Act, charges under that law can be brought against someone who hoarded national security secrets even if they were not deemed classified.

The list of items that the warrant authorized the F.B.I. to seize captured this nuance. It said agents could take “documents with classification markings,” along with anything else in the boxes or containers where they found such files, but also any information “regarding the retrieval, storage or transmission of national defense information or classified material.”

The government has not said what specific documents investigators thought Mr. Trump had kept at Mar-a-Lago, nor what they found there. The inventory of items was vague, including multiple mentions of “miscellaneous top-secret documents,” for example.

But the invocation of “the retrieval, storage or transmission” of secret information in the warrant offered a potential clue to at least one category of the files the F.B.I. may have been looking for. One possible interpretation of that phrase is that it hinted at encrypted communications, hacking or surveillance abilities.

The other two laws invoked in the warrant do not have to do with national security.

The second, Section 1519, is an obstruction law that is part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a broad set of reforms enacted by Congress in 2002 after financial scandals at firms like Enron, Arthur Andersen and WorldCom.

Section 1519 sets a penalty of up to 20 years in prison per offense for the act of destroying or concealing documents or records “with the intent to impede, obstruct or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter” within the jurisdiction of federal departments or agencies.

The warrant does not specify whether that obstruction effort is a reference to the government’s attempts to retrieve all the publicly owned documents that should be given to the National Archives and Records Administration, or something separate.

The third law that investigators cite in the warrant, Section 2071, criminalizes the theft or destruction of government documents. It makes it a crime, punishable in part by up to three years in prison per offense, for anyone with custody of any record or document from federal court or public office to willfully and unlawfully conceal, remove, mutilate, falsify or destroy it.

Given that the ongoing investigation is still shrouded in mystery, assuming that there isn’t some glaring horror, this is beginning to look like Al Capone’s prosecution for tax evasion.

Explainer on Politics of Replacing Justice Ginsburg

Millions of people grieve the loss of legal giant Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg today and appreciate her enormous contributions to fairness and equality. I would have loved to discuss Justice Ginsburg’s legacy in criminal justice decisions (I’m planning to do that in class on Monday) but apparently we don’t get a second to mourn and respect, because we’ve already been thrown into an imbroglio of political machinations and cost-benefit tactics. Today I did an explainer with Manny Yekutiel of Manny’s, which I’m happy to share in case it is useful.

Country for Some Old Men: The Roger Stone Pardon and the COVID-19 Prison Crisis

I confess to being a bit bewildered by the outrage building around Trump’s recent pardon of his business partner Roger Stone. Not because this is not outrageous–read Robert Mueller’s op-ed about Stone’s direct involvement in the misdeeds that led to Trump’s impeachment–but because Stone is only the last in a long list of people pardoned by Trump. The never-ending parade of horrors may have numbed some of us, but you might still remember the pardon of Joe Arpaio (the “penal cartoon” who ran Arizona jails as spectacles of dehumanization and humiliation).

Trump is not the only president to have used his commutation powers in controversial ways. As this excellent NPR piece explains, both Bushes and Clinton were criticized for misuse of their powers, as was Obama for the sheer number of commutations. What is unique about Trump’s pardons and commutations is that, with a handful of exceptions, they were given to people in furtherance of his own personal interests or to people prominently featured on Fox News. Moreover, Trump has virtually ignored the Department of Justice’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, whose function is to parse out the thousands of pardon requests it receives every year and make recommendations to the President. Usually, the President follows the Office’s recommendations, but not in this case, and as Mitch Jeserich and I discussed this morning on KPFA’s Letters and Politics, this means not only that Trump’s business partners and go-betweens are rewarded for their crimes, but also that ordinary people’s petitions are ignored and recommendations about them go unheeded. Trump’s adulation and courtship of celebrities is one contribution to his assault on the rule of law (with the notable exception of Kim Kardashian’s influence on the First Step Act). Combine all of this with Bill Barr’s jockeying of Manhattan federal prosecutors and you’ll find a continuation of the same trends.

One issue that Mitch and I discussed today was the public discourse around Roger Stone’s age and (he’s 67), and the argument that, with the pandemic ravaging prisons, he would be “put at serious medical risk in prison“. Of course age and health condition are valid considerations, but let’s keep things in context. Here’s a breakdown of the federal prison population by age. Close to 20% of them are aged 51 and older. Throw in people aged 46 and above, and you’re at almost a third of the prison population. That’s tens of thousands of people. One person, albeit famous/infamous, is a drop in the bucket, so forgive me if I’m not persuaded by the argument that this reflects sensitivity to public health.

Source: Federal Bureau of Prisons,

Worried about older people catching COVID-19 in federal prisons? Let them go–not only the ones that are doing time for being presidential go-betweens, but those who are doing time on a Frankenstein-like construction of enhancements and multiplications on nonviolent drug offenses (this is not as much of a thing in state prisons, but it is a huge factor in federal ones).

Speaking of state prisons, the situation at San Quentin continues to be dire. Over the weekend, they’ve seen 204 new cases. Notably, those are 204 positives out of a total of 259 tests, so things are going horribly wrong there. There are also 167 new cases at CCC (reflecting a major testing push), 15 new cases at CCI (hundreds of new tests there, as well as in DVI), 8 new cases at CRC, 5 new cases at WSP, 1 new case at SOL, 1 new case at CAL, and 2 new cases at CHCF (this is particularly worrisome because this Stockton prison houses a medically vulnerable population.)

In short, gentle readers, things are not going well. Stay tuned for updates.