Washington (CNN) — Revelation of an airstrike before a “beautiful” chocolate cake. An intruder from China carrying flash drives and electronics. Mobile photos of the “nuclear football” briefcase. And now, classified documents recovered during an FBI search. Mar-a-Lago, the stone-walled waterfront estate that Donald Trump dubbed the “Winter White House,” has long been a source of headaches for national security and intelligence professionals. Its clubby atmosphere, extensive guest list and garrulous owner have become a “nightmare” for keeping the government’s most intimate secrets, according to a former intelligence official.
Now the 114-room mansion and its various outbuildings are at the center of a Justice Department investigation into Trump’s handling of presidential material. Following an hours-long search of the property last week, FBI agents seized 11 sets of documents, some marked “compartmentalized sensitive information” among the highest levels of government secrets. CNN reported Saturday that one of Trump’s lawyers claimed in June that there was no classified material left at the club, raising new questions about the number of people who are legally exposed in the ongoing investigation.
In many ways, Trump’s 20-acre compound in Palm Beach, Florida, amounts to the physical embodiment of what some former aides describe as a haphazard, at best, approach by the former president to documents and classified information.
“Mar-a-Lago has been a porous place ever since Trump declared his candidacy and started winning the primary several years ago,” said Aki Peritz, a former CIA counterterrorism analyst. “If it were any intelligence service, friendly or not, worth their salt, I’d be concentrating their efforts on this incredibly porous place.”
When Trump left office in January 2021, it was Mar-a-Lago where he retreated, aching for a loss he refused to acknowledge. The club, with its paying members and its large oil paintings of Trump when he was younger, was a welcome haven.
It was also the destination of dozens of cardboard boxes, hastily packed in the final days of his administration and shipped in white trucks to Florida. People familiar with Trump’s departure from Washington said the packing process was rushed, in part because the outgoing president refused to engage in activities that would signal that he had lost the election. When it became clear that he would have to leave the White House, the items were quickly boxed up and shipped south without a clearly organized system.
“Trump kept a lot of things in his files that weren’t in the regular system or were given to him in the course of intelligence briefings,” said John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser. “I can easily imagine that in the last few chaotic days in the White House, since he didn’t think he was going to leave until the last minute, they were just throwing things into boxes, and it included a lot of things that he had accumulated over the four years.”
Some boxes, including some containing classified documents, had ended up at the club after Trump’s presidency ended. When federal investigators — including the Justice Department’s chief of counterintelligence and export control — traveled to Mar-a-Lago in June to discuss the classified documents with Trump and his attorneys, they expressed concern that the room would not was properly insured.
Trump’s team added a new lock to the door. But FBI agents returned to Mar-a-Lago last week to execute a search warrant at the property that identified three possible crimes: violations of the Espionage Act, obstruction of justice and criminal tampering with government records.
Among the objects removed after the search on Monday last week were a leather box with documents, folders with photos, “miscellaneous top secret documents” and “Info re. President of France,” according to the search warrant. Trump and his allies have claimed that he used his presidential prerogative to declassify the documents before he left office, though they have provided no evidence that a formal process took place.
“My only surprise was that they didn’t take Mar-a-Lago anymore,” Bolton said.
The habit of defying the rules
Last week was not the first time that federal intelligence officials became concerned about Trump’s keeping of government secrets. Almost from the time he took office, Trump has demonstrated his willingness to flout protocols for guarding sensitive information.
In 2017, revealed spontaneously told a group of Russian visitors, including the foreign minister, highly classified information about an Islamic State plot that the United States had received from Israel. It provoked deep anger in the intelligence services of both countries.
When he was briefed by intelligence officials in 2019 about an explosion in Iran, he later tweeted a highly classified satellite photo of the facility, despite hearing officials’ concerns beforehand that doing so could reveal US capabilities.
Trump preferred to receive intelligence updates electronically, according to his third chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, though he sometimes asked to keep physical documents from classified briefings.
“From time to time the president would say, ‘Can I keep this?’ But we had whole teams of people to make sure those documents weren’t left behind, weren’t brought into the residence. He used them. It was his right as president of the United States,” Mulvaney said.
Still, tracking the records was not a priority for Trump, according to several former officials. When he asked to keep sensitive documents, officials sometimes worried about what might happen to the material. When he traveled, his aides often followed him closely, carrying cardboard boxes in which they had collected piles of papers that Trump had left behind.
Trump and a mix of business with pleasure
At Mar-a-Lago, concerns about Trump revealing high-level government secrets — accidentally or not — were amplified. The facilities function as a club with a pool, spa, restaurant and clubhouse for its members and their guests; the gold-adorned Donald J. Trump Ballroom can be rented for weddings and other events.
Although the Secret Service screens visitors for weapons and checks their names against a list, it is not responsible for protecting secret documents or protecting them from possible interference.
Members flocked to Trump’s club when he was in town as president, and rules enacted early in his term against taking photos in the dining room weren’t always strictly enforced.
That became apparent in February 2017, when Trump hosted then-Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for dinner on the patio. After a North Korean missile launch interrupted the meal, Trump and Abe met with their national security advisers in full view of the other diners, who ate blue cheese salads while snapping photos of impromptu crisis talks.
Trump aides later insisted that he had broken into a secure room — known as the Sensitive Shared Information Facility (SCIF) — to receive an update on the launch, and that he and Abe were simply discussing logistics for their remarks. to the press.
However, the spate of photos posted on social media by Mar-a-Lago members showed the two leaders poring over documents at their table, along with aides working on laptops and Trump talking on his mobile phone. At one point, staff used flashlights from their mobile phones to illuminate documents leaders were reading.
Soon after, some new rules went into effect to limit who could be in the club when Trump was there. Reservations were required two weeks in advance and new limits were placed on the number of guests members could bring.
Trump returned to SCIF at Mar-a-Lago in the spring of 2017 to discuss launching an air strike against Syria; at the time, he was receiving Chinese President Xi Jinping for dinner. Later, he said that he returned to the table to inform Xi of his decision while they ate the “prettiest piece of chocolate cake you’ve ever seen.”
One of the concerns of Trump aides at Mar-a-Lago was their relative inability to discern who exactly he was talking to while there. Compared to the White House, with its strict access lists, it was sometimes unclear even to Trump’s most senior advisers who he had come into contact with in the club.
Trump’s deputy chief of staff, John Kelly, worked to limit who had access to Trump at Mar-a-Lago, though there was little expectation that he or any other adviser could completely restrict the president’s conversations with friends and paying members. from Mar-a-Lago. Kelly told his aides at the time that he was more interested in knowing who Trump was talking to than preventing the talks from taking place.
Kelly also worked to implement a more structured system for handling classified material, though Trump’s cooperation on the system was not always guaranteed.
Managing a variety of risks
While at Mar-a-Lago, Trump did not always use his SCIF when viewing classified documents, according to a person familiar with the matter. And his penchant for sharing what he knew with his interlocutors was a source of constant frustration.
“He was a difficult president to support in terms of trying to give him the information he needed while also protecting the way we collected it so he didn’t accidentally or otherwise speak off the mark and mention something an adversary could use.” to track down where we had an agent,” said Douglas London, a former CIA counterterrorism official who served during the Trump administration.
London said it was ironic that Trump kept classified documents since the former president “wasn’t much of a reader.”
Keeping information on Mar-a-Lago members classified was one thing; keeping out potential security threats proved to be its own challenge.
In 2019, a 33-year-old businesswoman from Shanghai was arrested for trespassing on Trump’s club grounds. At the time of her arrest, Yujing Zhang had four mobile phones, a laptop, an external hard drive, and a USB flash drive in her possession. Prosecutors said they also found other electronics, including a signal detector to identify hidden cameras, and thousands of dollars in cash in her hotel room.
Another Chinese national, Lu Jing, was also charged with breaking and entering Mar-a-Lago that same year. Officials said that during the incident, security asked Lu to leave before returning to the premises and taking photos.
The motives of either woman for trying to gain access to the club were never determined. Lu was found not guilty; Zhang was eventually sentenced to eight months in prison.