WASHINGTON (CNN) — An air raid exposure before a “beautiful” chocolate cake. An intruder from China carrying flash drives and electronics. Mobile photos of the “nuclear football” briefcase. Now, classified documents have been recovered during an FBI search. Mar-a-Lago, the stone-walled waterfront estate that Donald Trump has dubbed the “Winter White House,” has long been a headache for national security and intelligence experts. According to a former intelligence official, its clubby atmosphere, extensive guest list and strict ownership made it a “nightmare” for keeping the government’s most intimate secrets.
Now the 114-room mansion and its various outbuildings are at the center of a Justice Department investigation into Trump’s handling of presidential supplies. Following an hour-long search of the property last week, FBI agents seized 11 sets of documents, some marked “classified sensitive information” at the highest levels of government secrets.
CNN reported Saturday that one of Trump’s lawyers said in June that there were no classified materials at the club, raising new questions about the number of people legally exposed in the ongoing investigation.
In many ways, Trump’s 20-acre compound in Palm Beach, Florida, describes the former president’s approach to access to some former aides, documents and classified information as, at best, a bottleneck.
“Mar-a-Lago has been a porous place since Trump announced his candidacy and began winning the primary several years ago,” said Aki Peritz, a former CIA counterterrorism analyst. “Friendly or not, if it’s an intelligence service, they’re going to focus their efforts on this incredibly porous space.”
When Trump left office in January 2021, he retreated to Mar-a-Lago, grieving over a loss he refused to acknowledge. The club, with its paying members and its large oil paintings, was a welcome haven when Trump was younger.
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 because the outgoing president refused to engage in activities that signaled his defeat. When it became clear that he would have to leave the White House, supplies were quickly boxed up and sent south without a clearly organized system.
Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, said Trump had “a lot of things in his files that weren’t in the regular system or were given to him during intelligence briefings.” During the last few chaotic days in the White House, they were throwing things in boxes because he didn’t think he was leaving until the last minute, and in I can easily imagine that it included a lot of things he had accumulated. In four years.”
After Trump’s presidency ended, some boxes, including some classified documents, ended up at the club. When federal investigators — including the Justice Department’s head of counterintelligence and export controls — visited Mar-a-Lago in June to discuss classified documents with Trump and his lawyers, they expressed concern that the room was not properly insured.
Trump’s team added a new lock to the door. But FBI agents returned to Mar-a-Lago last week and executed a search warrant on the property that identified three possible crimes: violations of the Espionage Act, obstruction of justice and tampering with government records.
Among the items removed after the search on Monday last week were a leather case containing documents, folders with photographs, “other top secret documents” and “Information re. President of France,” according to the search warrant. Trump and his aides have said he used his presidential prerogative to declassify documents before he left office, though they have provided no evidence that a formal process took place.
“My only surprise is that they don’t carry Mar-a-Lago anymore,” Bolton said.
A habit of breaking rules
Last week wasn’t the first time federal intelligence officials were concerned about Trump’s handling of government secrets. Almost since his inauguration, Trump has shown a penchant for violating protocols to protect sensitive information.
In 2017, revealed He spontaneously told a group of Russian observers, including the foreign minister, highly classified information about an Islamic State plot that the United States had received from Israel. This caused a lot of anger between the intelligence agencies of the two countries.
When he was briefed by intelligence officials about the explosion in Iran in 2019, he later tweeted a highly classified satellite photo of the facility, having previously listened to officials’ concerns that doing so could reveal US capabilities.
Trump preferred to receive intelligence updates electronically, according to his third chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, although he sometimes asked to keep physical documents from classified briefings.
“Then the president said, ‘Can we keep this?’ “But we had a whole team of people to make sure those documents weren’t left, weren’t brought into the House. He used them. That’s his right as president of the United States,” Mulvaney said.
However, tracking records is not a priority for Trump, according to several former officials. When he asks to keep important documents, officials sometimes worry about what will happen to the material. As he travels, his aides often follow close behind him, carrying cardboard boxes that hold piles of paper left behind by Trump.
A combination of business with Trump and pleasure
At Mar-a-Lago, concerns grew about Trump revealing high-level government secrets — accidentally or not. Facilities include a pool, spa, restaurant and clubhouse serving as a club for its members and their guests; The gold-plated Donald J. The 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 classified documents or protecting them from possible interception.
Members flocked to Trump’s club while he was president, and rules enacted early in his tenure against taking pictures in the dining room were not always strictly enforced.
That was evident in February 2017 when Trump hosted a patio dinner for then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. After a North Korean missile launch interrupted the meal, Trump and Abe met with their national security advisers in full view of other diners, who munched on blue cheese salads while snapping photos of emergency crisis talks.
Trump aides later insisted he entered a secure room — known as the Sensitive Shared Information Facility (SCIF) — to receive an update on the launch, where he and Abe were discussing the logistics of their comments to the press.
However, a number of photos posted on social media by Mar-a-Lago members showed the two leaders poring over documents on their desks and aides working on laptops while Trump spoke on his mobile phone. At one point, employees used flashlights from their mobile phones to illuminate documents that leaders were reading.
Soon after, some new rules came into effect to restrict who could be in the club while Trump was there. Reservations had to be made two weeks in advance and new limits were placed on the number of guests members could bring.
Trump returned to the SCIF at Mar-a-Lago in the spring of 2017 to discuss launching airstrikes against Syria; At that time, he hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping for dinner. Later, he said, he returned to the table to inform Xi of his decision as they ate “the most beautiful chocolate cake you’ve ever seen.”
One of the concerns of Trump aides at Mar-a-Lago is their inability to figure out exactly who he’s talking to when he’s there. Compared to the White House, with its strict access lists, it’s sometimes unclear even to Trump’s senior advisers that he’s connected to the club.
John Kelly, Trump’s vice president, has been tasked with controlling who has access to Trump at Mar-a-Lago, though he or any other adviser is not expected to fully control the president’s conversations with friends and payments to members. A-lago. Kelly told aides at the time that he was more interested in knowing who Trump was talking to than stopping talks.
Kelly also worked to implement a more structured system for handling classified material, though Trump’s cooperation in the system was not always guaranteed.
Managing various risks
While at Mar-a-Lago, Trump did not always use his SCIF when looking at classified documents, according to a person familiar with the matter. And his tendency to share what he knew with his interlocutors led to constant frustration.
“He didn’t miss the mark, accidentally or otherwise, he didn’t mention something that the enemy could use, and he was a tough president to try to get the information he needed at the same time.” Where we had an agent,” said Douglas London, a former CIA counterterrorism official who served during the Trump administration.
London said Trump’s possession of classified documents was ironic because the former president was “not much of a reader.”
Classifying information about Mar-a-Lago members is one thing; Avoiding potential security threats proved to be its own challenge.
In 2019, a 33-year-old businessman from Shanghai was arrested for trespassing on Trump’s club grounds. At the time of his arrest, Yujing Zhang was in possession of four mobile phones, a laptop, an external hard drive and a USB flash drive. Prosecutors said other electronic devices, including a signal detector that detects hidden cameras, and thousands of dollars in cash were found in his hotel room.
Another Chinese national, Lu Jing, was also charged with breaking and entering Mar-a-Lago that same year. During the incident, security asked Lu to leave before returning to campus and taking photos, officials said.
The woman’s motives for trying to gain access to the club are never determined. Lu is innocent; Zhang was eventually sentenced to eight months in prison.
“Music ninja. Analyst. Typical coffee lover. Travel evangelist. Proud explorer.”