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Unsealed documents tell the what and why of the FBI's search of Trump's property

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

The FBI recovered highly classified information in its search of former President Trump's Mar-a-Lago property this week. That's according to an inventory the agency filed in court of what it collected. The judge who authorized the search unsealed that list as well as the search warrant yesterday. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson joins us now with more details. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Daniel.

ESTRIN: What do we know at this point about what exactly the FBI is investigating?

JOHNSON: Well, the paperwork tells us a lot but not everything. The FBI took several boxes of information from former President Trump's residence and office at Mar-a-Lago including material classified as top-secret. Federal agents took a clemency grant for Trump's longtime friend Roger Stone. They took unspecified information about the president of France, and they took at least one binder filled with photos.

ESTRIN: OK. Now, Trump has not been charged with any crime here, right? But I understand these warrants usually list laws that may have been violated.

JOHNSON: That's right. The court papers list three laws that appear to be central to the investigation. One involves obstruction of federal probes, raising the question of what investigation Trump might have been trying to obstruct. Was it this one into the documents or something else? A second law is listed that makes it a crime to conceal, remove or mutilate government records - and finally, a part of the Espionage Act that involves gathering, transmitting or losing sensitive information related to the national defense. Breaking any of these laws is a serious matter and could involve prison time. But again, there are currently no charges against former President Trump or any of his aides who may have packed or shipped this material to Florida.

ESTRIN: What has Trump's public reaction been to all this?

JOHNSON: You know, Trump and his allies first suggested the FBI had planted evidence, providing no basis for that allegation. And in fact, we now know his lawyer signed off on the property receipt following the search on Monday night in Florida. Then, Trump said former President Obama took classified materials when he left the White House. And in fact, the National Archives put out a statement refuting that claim. The Archive says it has millions of documents from the Obama White House, some in Chicago and some classified ones near Washington, D.C., and that none of them are in Obama's control.

ESTRIN: Well, Trump supporters have also argued that he declassified a lot of material, which presidents do have the authority to do. So what are we learning about that?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Since this summer, one of Trump's allies named Kash Patel has argued Trump declassified this material in Florida. But the problem with that is that this process requires paperwork. It's not sure Trump has any paperwork to back up those claims. And legal experts say that it may not matter if the material has been declassified. You still can't take it home with you. And when the government asks for it, you need to give it back.

And in fact, this has been going on back and forth all year. The Archives alerted the Justice Department back in February. Then, it got 15 boxes of material Trump took to Florida with them. For some reason, he didn't turn over these other documents until the FBI came calling with a search warrant. So Merrick Garland, the attorney general, told reporters this week the Justice Department actually uses the least intrusive methods it can, implying that Trump has been stonewalling all this time.

ESTRIN: Wow. So the obvious question, Carrie, is, what's next?

JOHNSON: Yeah, there's a legal fight underway now to unseal the affidavit. That's the reasons why the FBI thought there was probable cause that a crime had been committed and that there was important evidence in Florida. Several media groups are trying to get that document made public in the coming weeks. And then, there's this question of the ongoing federal investigation. What will a grand jury and the Justice Department do here? Will they decide to charge the former president or one of his aides with a crime? That is an enormous step to consider.

ESTRIN: NPR's Carrie Johnson, thanks very much.

JOHNSON: Happy to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.

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