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Mar-a-Lago investigation: What we know so far

The FBI searched the premises yesterday.

Police standby at the approach to Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach on Monday night as Trump supporters gather in the area.
Police standby at the approach to Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach on Monday night as Trump supporters gather in the area.
Image: Nicholas Nehamas via PA Images

THE FBI HAVE searched Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida.

Aerial footage of property showed police cars outside the estate yesterday.

In a statement posted to Trump’s own social media platform, the Truth Social network, the former US president said that “raid” signified “dark times for [the United States]” and denounced the FBI’s investigation of the property as “prosecutorial misconduct”.

The search intensifies the months-long probe into how classified documents ended up in more than a dozen boxes located at Mar-a-Lago earlier this year and adds to the list of legal perils faced by Trump.

Here is what we know so far.

Why are the FBI investigating Trump’s estate?

Trump came under fire earlier this year after the National Archives and Records Administration said it had received 15 boxes of White House records, including documents containing classified information from Mar-a-Lago earlier this year.

The National Archives, who recovered the boxes, said Trump should have turned over that material upon leaving office and it asked the Justice Department to investigate.

An early-stage investigation was launched in April.

Sources familiar with the investigation said the search was related to the records probe.

Agents were also looking to see if Mr Trump had additional presidential records or any classified documents at the estate.

Eric Trump, the ex-president’s son, told Fox News last night that he had spent the day with his father and that the search happened because “the National Archives wanted to corroborate whether or not Donald Trump had any documents in his possession”.

There are multiple federal laws governing the handling of classified records and sensitive government documents, including statutes that make it a crime to remove such material and retain it at an unauthorised location.

Trump has previously maintained that presidential records were turned over “in an ordinary and routine process”.

This is not the first time the ex-president has come under scrutiny in relation to missing documents. White House staff also regularly discovered wads of paper clogging toilets, leading them to believe Trump was trying to get rid of certain documents, according to a forthcoming book by New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman.

Who authorised the raid?

The FBI declined to comment on whether the search was happening or what it might be for.

Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson also refused to comment on the investigation, including about whether Attorney General Merrick Garland had personally authorised it.

What other legal battles is Trump involved in?

The archive scandal is just one of the many legal perils currently facing the former-president.

For weeks, Washington has been riveted by hearings in Congress about the January 6 storming of the Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters and his attempts to overturn the election.

The US Department of Justice is also investigating the January 6 attack.

While Attorney General Merrick Garland has declined to comment on growing speculation that Trump could face criminal charges, he has insisted that “no person is above the law” and that he intends to “hold accountable every person who is criminally responsible for trying to overturn a legitimate election.”

Trump is also being investigated for his efforts to alter the 2020 voting results in the state of Georgia, while his business practices are being probed in New York in separate cases, one civil and the other criminal.

In June, Trump blasted the committee’s efforts as a “theatrical production of partisan political fiction” and insisted he had done nothing wrong.

A civil probe has also been launched into the alleged fraud of the Trump Organisation, with Trump and his eldest children scheduled to testify.

New York state attorney general Letitia James and her team of investigators will examine if the family fraudulently overstated the value of real estate properties when applying for bank loans, while understating them with the tax authorities in order to pay less in taxes.

The Trumps have denied any wrongdoing.

Will this stop Trump running for office again?

Speaking to religious conservatives at a sprawling resort near the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville in June, Trump teased supporters about whether he will run for re-election in 2024.

Though the FBI’s search does not mean that criminal charges against Trump are near or even expected, federal officials looking to obtain one must first demonstrate to a judge that they have probable cause that a crime occurred.

What would this mean for Trump’s chances at another stint in the White House, should he run again?

According to the New York Times, Section 2071 of Title 18 of the United States Code incriminates anyone who “willfully and unlawfully” conceals or destroys government documents.

If convicted, defendants can be fined or sentenced to prison for up to three years. The statute also states that anyone holding federal office and convicted under this legislation will be made to forfeit that office and disqualified from holding any office in the future.

However, as reported by the Times, the US Constitution sets eligibility criteria for who can be president, with many legal experts noting that Supreme Court rulings suggest Congress cannot alter them.

While the Constitution allows Congress to disqualify people from holding office in impeachment proceedings, it does not grant such power for ordinary criminal law. 

As such, and as noted by Democratic lawyer Marc Elias on Twitter, Section 2071 might not totally ban Trump from seeking the presidency again, but a legal dispute over it would still pose a significant political challenge.

https://twitter.com/marceelias/status/1556804512576323584

With reporting from PA and AFP.

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