The revelation of an air raid while enjoying a “beautiful” chocolate cake. An invader from China carrying flash drives and other electronics. Cellphone photos showing the “nuclear soccer ball” case, which contains codes for launching nuclear weapons – all this happened at Mar-a-Lago. And now, confidential documents were recovered during an FBI search last week.
Mar-a-Lago, the stone-walled beachfront property that Donald Trump has called the “Winter White House,” has long been a source of headaches for intelligence and national security professionals. The club atmosphere, extensive guest list and the talkative owner combined have made it a “nightmare” to keep the government’s best-kept secrets, said a former intelligence official.
Now the 114-room mansion and its various outbuildings are at the center of a US Justice Department investigation into Trump’s handling of presidential material. After an hours-long search of the property last week, FBI agents seized 11 sets of documents, some marked as “confidential compartmentalized information” – which are among the highest levels of government confidentiality.
THE CNN reported Saturday that one of Trump’s lawyers said in June that no classified material remained at the club – raising new questions about the number of people who have legal exposure in the ongoing investigation.
In many ways, Trump’s 20-acre complex in Palm Beach, Fla., equates to the physical form of what some former aides describe as the former president’s casual approach to confidential documents and information.
“Mar-a-Lago has been a porous place since Trump declared his candidacy and started winning primaries several years ago,” said Aki Peritz, a former CIA counterterrorism analyst. “If you were any intelligence service, friendly or hostile, worth its salt, they would be focusing their efforts on this incredibly porous place.”
When Trump left the government in January 2021, it was in Mar-a-Lago that he set up camp, aching for a loss he refused to acknowledge. The club, with its paying members and large oil paintings of Trump as a young man, was a welcome retreat.
That was also the fate of dozens of boxes, hastily packed in the last days of his administration and shipped in white trucks to Florida. People familiar with Trump’s departure from Washington said the packing and packing process was rushed, in part because the hitherto president refused to engage in activities that would signal he had lost the election.
When it became clear that he would need to leave the White House, items were quickly packed into boxes 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 that were turned over to him during intelligence meetings,” said John Bolton, a former national security adviser to Trump.
“I can easily imagine the last few chaotic days in the White House, as he didn’t think he was going to leave until the last minute, they were just throwing stuff in boxes, and that included a lot of stuff he had accumulated over the four years.”
Some boxes containing confidential documents ended up in the club after the end of Trump’s presidential term. When federal investigators — including the Justice Department’s heads of counter-intelligence and export control — traveled to Mar-a-Lago in June to discuss confidential documents with Trump and his lawyers, they expressed concern that the mansion’s room was not properly protected.
Trump’s team put a new lock on the door. But FBI agents returned to Mar-a-Lago last week to execute a search warrant on the property that identified three possible crimes: violations of the Espionage Act, obstruction of justice and criminal manipulation of government records.
Items taken after Monday’s search included a leather box of documents, folders of photos, “Miscellaneous Top Secret Documents” and “Information on the President of France,” according to the search warrant.
Trump and his allies claimed he used his presidential prerogative to overturn the confidentiality of documents before leaving office, although they did not provide any evidence of a formal process to do so.
“My only surprise was that they hadn’t taken even more stuff to Mar-a-Lago,” Bolton said.
The habit of defying norms
What happened last week was not the first time federal intelligence officials were concerned about how Trump was keeping government secrets. Almost immediately after he took office, Trump showed a willingness to flout protocols protecting confidential information.
In 2017, he spontaneously revealed highly confidential information about an Islamic State plot to an entourage of Russian visitors, which included the foreign minister, which the US had received from Israel. This caused deep anger in the intelligence services of both countries.
When he was informed by intelligence officials in 2019 of an explosion in Iran, he later tweeted a highly confidential satellite photo of the facility — despite hearing officials’ concerns that it could reveal American 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 briefings confidential.
“From time to time, the president would say, ‘Can I have this?’ But we had whole teams of people to make sure these documents weren’t left behind, weren’t taken into the residence. He would use them. That was his right as President of the United States,” Mulvaney said.
Still, tracking records was not a priority for Trump, according to several former officials. When he asked to keep confidential documents, the authorities were sometimes worried about what might happen to the material. When he traveled, aides often followed close behind, carrying cardboard boxes and picking up stacks of papers Trump had left behind.
Mixing business with pleasure
At Mar-a-Lago, concerns about Trump revealing top government secrets — accidentally or not — were amplified. The facility functions as a clubhouse with a pool, spa, restaurant and clubhouse for members and their guests; the gold-decorated Donald J. Trump Ballroom can be rented for weddings and other events.
Although the Secret Service tracks visitors for weapons and checks their names against a list, they are not responsible for protecting secret documents or preventing potential interference.
Members flocked to Trump’s club when he was in town as president, and the rules enacted early in his term against taking pictures in the dining room weren’t always followed to the letter.
This was evident in February 2017, when Trump hosted the late then Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, for a patio dinner. After a North Korean missile launch interrupted the meal, Trump and Abe met with their national security advisers in plain sight of other patrons, who were eating blue cheese salads while recording impromptu crisis management conversations with their cell phones. leaders.
Trump’s aides later insisted that he had entered a secure room – known as the Sensitive Compartment Information Facility (SCIF) – to receive updates on the launch, and that he and Abe were simply discussing logistics. of his statements to the press.
However, the flurry of photos posted on social media by Mar-a-Lago members showed the two leaders examining documents at the dinner table, along with aides working on laptops and Trump talking on his cell phone. At one point, employees used the flashlights on their cell phones to illuminate documents the leaders were reading.
Soon after, some new rules went into effect to limit who could be at the club when Trump was there. Reservations were required to be made two weeks in advance, and new limits were imposed on the number of guests members could bring.
Trump returned to the Mar-a-Lago SCIF in spring 2017 to discuss launching an air strike in Syria; at the time, he was hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping for dinner. He later said he returned to the table to inform Xi of his decision as they ate the “most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you’ve ever seen”.
One of the concerns of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago aides was his relative inability to discern exactly who he was talking to while he was there. Compared to the White House, with its restricted access lists, it was sometimes unclear to even the most senior Trump advisers who he was in contact with at the club.
Trump’s second 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 aide would be able to fully restrict the president’s conversations with friends and paying members of Mar-a-Lago. Kelly told associates at the time that he was more interested in knowing who Trump was talking to than preventing the conversations from happening.
Kelly also worked to implement a more structured system for handling classified material, although Trump’s collaboration with the system was not always guaranteed.
Managing a variety of risks
While at Mar-a-Lago, Trump did not always use SCIF to view classified documents, according to a source familiar with the matter. And his propensity to share 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 still protecting the way we collected it so he wouldn’t accidentally speak up or otherwise mention something an adversary could use to track where we had it. an agent,” said Douglas London, a former CIA counterterrorism officer who served during the Trump administration.
London said it was ironic for Trump to keep documents confidential, as the former president “wasn’t much of a reader”.
Keeping Mar-a-Lago members’ confidential information was one thing; keeping out potential security threats proved to be a challenge.
In 2019, a 33-year-old businesswoman from Shanghai was arrested for trespassing on Trump’s club property. At the time of his arrest, Yujing Zhang was in possession of four cell phones, a laptop, an external hard drive and a USB flash drive. Prosecutors said they also found a trove of additional electronics – including a signal detector to detect hidden cameras – and thousands of dollars in cash in his hotel room.
Another Chinese national, Lu Jing, was also accused of invading Mar-a-Lago later that year. Officials said that during the incident, Lu was asked to leave by security before returning to the facility and taking pictures.
It was never determined what these women’s motives were in trying to access the club. Lu was found not guilty; Zhang was eventually sentenced to eight months in prison.
Source: CNN Brasil