Washington (AFP) -
Top secret documents found at Donald Trump's Florida home were 'likely concealed' to obstruct an FBI probe into the former president's potential mishandling of classified materials, the Department of Justice said in an explosive new court filing.
The filing released late Tuesday provides the most detailed account yet of the motivation for the raid on Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate -- which was triggered by a review of highly classified records that he had previously surrendered to authorities.
Before the raid, the FBI uncovered 'multiple sources of evidence' showing that 'classified documents' remained at Mar-a-Lago, the filing says, despite the assertion by Trump's representatives that all sensitive materials had been handed over.
The filing made clear that prosecutors are seeking to determine whether Trump or anyone in his immediate orbit acted criminally to prevent federal agents from retrieving classified documents.
'The government also developed evidence that government records were likely concealed and removed from the Storage Room (at Trump's estate) and that efforts were likely taken to obstruct the government's investigation,' the filing adds.
When agents conducted their court-ordered search on August 8, they found material so sensitive that 'even the FBI counterintelligence personnel and DOJ attorneys conducting the review required additional clearances before they were permitted to review certain documents,' it says.
In total, the filing says, agents recovered more than 100 documents with classification markings, in 13 boxes or containers, during the raid.
In a striking image sure to reverberate around Washington, the filing included a photograph of color-coded documents spread out over a carpet, marked 'SECRET' and 'TOP SECRET.'
Trump fired back Wednesday at the photo's release in a post on his Truth Social network.
'Terrible the way the FBI, during the Raid of Mar-a-Lago, threw documents haphazardly all over the floor (perhaps pretending it was me that did it!), and then started taking pictures of them for the public to see,' he wrote.
'Thought they wanted them kept Secret? Lucky I Declassified.'
- 'Delayed access' -
Trump, who is weighing another White House run in 2024, has accused the Justice Department under Democratic President Joe Biden of conducting a 'witch hunt' and said the judge 'should never have allowed the break-in of my home.'
Trump has taken legal action to seek the appointment of an independent party, or 'special master,' to screen the seized files for materials protected by personal privilege.
The government's filing argues that such an appointment, which would potentially block investigators' access to the documents, is 'unnecessary and would significantly harm important governmental interests, including national security interests.'
The Justice Department said it provided the detailed background on the build-up to the raid 'to correct the incomplete and inaccurate narrative' set forth by Trump's lawyers.
Its investigation began after the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) received 15 boxes of records in January that had been improperly removed from the White House and taken to Mar-a-Lago.
According to the affidavit used to justify the raid, sensitive national defense information was among the 'highly classified' records surrendered at that time, including 67 documents marked as confidential, 92 as secret and 25 as top secret.
In its filing, the Justice Department says 'the former president delayed the FBI's access to the fifteen boxes' once they had been surrendered to NARA.
The Mar-a-Lago search warrant, personally approved by Attorney General Merrick Garland, authorized the FBI to access the '45 office' -- a reference to the 45th US president's private office -- and storage rooms.
The extraordinary search was partly based on suspicions of violations of the US Espionage Act related to the illegal retention of sensitive defense documents, the warrant showed.
Tuesday's filing detailed how FBI agents in a previous operation traveled to Mar-a-Lago on June 3 and took into custody several documents turned over by a Trump custodian -- who provided 'sworn certification' that they represented the last of the material.
Democratic congressman Adam Schiff, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said the actions outlined in the brief were 'reckless in the extreme' and showed 'deliberate' deception.
In addition to investigations in New York into his business practices, Trump faces legal scrutiny for his efforts to overturn results of the 2020 election, and for the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol by his supporters.
Trump was impeached for a historic second time by the House of Representatives after the Capitol riot -- he was charged with inciting an insurrection -- but was acquitted by the Senate.