Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago was a ‘nightmare’ environment to house classified documents, experts say


The seizure of classified US government documents from Donald Trump’s sprawling Mar-a-Lago retreat highlights the lingering national security concerns presented by the former president and the home he dubbed the White House of winter.

Mr Trump is under federal investigation for possible violations of the Espionage Act, which makes it illegal to spy for another country or mishandle US defense information.

As president, Mr. Trump has sometimes shared information, no matter how sensitive.

Early in his presidency, he spontaneously gave highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister about a planned Islamic State operation while in the Oval Office, US officials said at the time.

But it was at Mar-a-Lago that American intelligence seemed particularly threatened.

The mansion and private club located in Florida’s Palm Beach County was Mr Trump’s luxurious winter home.

The century-old property has 58 bedrooms, 33 bathrooms, 12 fireplaces and three bomb shelters.

Among the list of items seized was information on “the President of France” – presumably Emmanuel Macron, in office since 2017.(Pool via AP: Christian Hartmann)

It was where well-heeled members and guests attended fundraising dinners and frolicked on a breezy ocean patio, and Mr. Trump could host meetings with international leaders and foreign visitors.

The Secret Service provided security while Mr Trump was president and said they had not determined who had access to the club.

They did, however, carry out physical checks to ensure no one was bringing contraband, as well as additional checks for guests near the former president and other protected persons.

“Even the mere keeping of highly classified documents in inappropriate storage – especially given Mar-a-Lago, the foreign visitors there and others who may have ties to foreign governments and foreign agents – creates a significant threat to national security,” the former Justice Department said. (DOJ) official Mary McCord.

“Obviously they thought it was very serious about getting these materials back to a safe space,” Ms McCord said.

Three pages of printed paper showed a
The list of seized property includes several entries for “Various secret documents”.(Reuters: Jim Bourg)

Mr Trump, in a statement on his social media platform, said the records were “all declassified” and placed in “secure storage”.

However, Ms McCord said she saw no ‘plausible argument that he made a conscious decision about each of them to declassify them before he left’.

After leaving office, he had no authority to declassify information, she said.

The seizure by FBI agents on Monday of several sets of documents and dozens of boxes, including US defense information and a reference to the “French president”, poses a chilling scenario for intelligence professionals.

“It’s a nightmarish environment for the careful handling of highly classified information,” said a former US intelligence officer.

“It’s just a nightmare.”

The DOJ did not provide specific information on how or where the documents and photos were stored, but the club’s general vulnerabilities were well documented.

Donald Trump looks at the camera as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and aide discuss North Korea
Guests hovered and listened as Mr Trump discussed North Korea’s missile test with then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Mar-a-Lago. (Instagram: Erika Bain)

In a high-profile example, Mr. Trump in 2017 huddled with then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at an outdoor dinner table as guests hovered nearby, listening and snapping photos as he ‘they then posted on Twitter.

The dinner was disrupted by a North Korean missile test and guests listened to Mr. Trump and Mr. Abe figuring out what to say in response. After issuing a statement, Mr Trump moved on to a wedding party at the club.

“What we saw was that Trump was so lax on security that he had a sensitive meeting on a potential wartime topic where non-US government personnel could observe and photograph,” said Mark Zaid, a lawyer specializing in national security cases.

An aerial view of Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago club in Florida
Trump bought the century-old property in 1985, using it as his private residence until 1995. ((Reuters/Carlos Barria))

“It would have been easy for someone to also have a device that also heard and recorded what Trump was saying.”

White House press secretary at the time of Abe’s visit, Sean Spicer, told reporters afterward that Mr. Trump was briefed on the North Korean launch in a secure room at Mar-a-Lago. . He minimized the scene on the patio.

“At that point, apparently, a photo was taken, where everyone jumped to damaging conclusions about what might or might not be discussed,” he said.

“There was just a discussion about press logistics, where to host the event.”

It was in the Mar-a-Lago safe room that Mr. Trump decided to launch airstrikes against Syria for the use of chemical weapons in April 2017.

With the decision made, Mr. Trump went to dinner with visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping. Over chocolate cake, Mr. Trump briefed Mr. Xi about the airstrikes.

In 2019, a Chinese woman who passed club security checks with a USB key encoded with “malicious” software was arrested for entering a restricted-access property and making false statements to authorities, authorities said at the time.

Then-White House chief of staff John Kelly launched an effort to try to limit who had access to Mr Trump at Mar-a-Lago, but the effort failed when Mr Trump refused to cooperate, aides said at the time.



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