According to people familiar with the investigation, classified documents relating to nuclear weapons were among the items FBI agents sought in a search of former president Donald Trump’s Florida residence on Monday.
Experts in classified information said the unusual search underscores deep concern among government officials about the types of information they thought could be located at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club and potentially in danger of falling into the wrong hands.
The people who described some of the material that agents were seeking spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation. They did not offer additional details about what type of information the agents were seeking, including whether it involved weapons belonging to the United States or some other nation. Nor did they say if such documents were recovered as part of the search. A Trump spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Justice Department and FBI declined to comment.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said he could not discuss the investigation on Thursday. But in an unusual public statement at the Justice Department, he announced he had personally authorized the decision to seek court permission for a search warrant.
Garland spoke moments after Justice Department lawyers filed a motion seeking to unseal the search warrant in the case, noting that Trump had publicly revealed the search shortly after it happened.
“The public’s clear and powerful interest in understanding what occurred under these circumstances weighs heavily in favor of unsealing,” the motion says. “That said, the former President should have an opportunity to respond to this Motion and lodge objections, including with regards to any ‘legitimate privacy interests’ or the potential for other ‘injury’ if these materials are made public.”
Experts said that material about nuclear weapons is especially sensitive and usually restricted to a small number of government officials. Publicizing details about U.S. weapons could provide an intelligence road map to adversaries seeking to build ways of countering those systems. And other countries might view exposing their nuclear secrets as a threat, experts said.
One former Justice Department official, who in the past oversaw investigations of leaks of classified information, said the type of top-secret information described by the people familiar with the probe would probably cause authorities to try to move as quickly as possible to recover sensitive documents that could cause grave harm to U.S. security.
“If that is true, it would suggest that material residing unlawfully at Mar-a-Lago may have been classified at the highest classification level,” said David Laufman, the former chief of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence section, which investigates leaks of classified information. “If the FBI and the Department of Justice believed there were top secret materials still at Mar-a-Lago, that would lend itself to greater ‘hair-on-fire’ motivation to recover that material as quickly as possible.”
The Monday search of Trump’s home by FBI agents has caused a political furor, with Trump and many of his Republican defenders accusing the FBI of acting out of politically motivated malice. Some have threatened the agency on social media.
As Garland spoke Thursday, police in Ohio were engaged in a standoff with an armed man who allegedly tried to storm the Cincinnati office of the FBI. The man was killed by police later that day; authorities said negotiations had failed.
State and federal officials declined to name the man or describe a potential motive. However, a law enforcement official identified him as Ricky Shiffer.
According to another law enforcement official, agents are investigating Shiffer’s possible ties to extremist groups, including the Proud Boys, whose leaders are accused of helping launch the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
A person using Shiffer’s name on TruthSocial, Trump’s social media site, posted a “call to arms” message shortly after Monday’s FBI search became public.
“People, this is it,” the message said. “Leave work tomorrow as soon as the gun shop/Army-Navy store/pawn shop opens, get whatever you need to be ready for combat. We must not tolerate this one. They have conditioned us to accept tyranny and think we can’t do anything for 2 years. This time we must respond with force.”
In his statement on Thursday, Garland defended FBI agents as “dedicated, patriotic public servants” and said he would not “stand by silently when their integrity is unfairly attacked … Every day they protect the American people from violent crime, terrorism and other threats to their safety while safeguarding our civil rights. They do so at great personal sacrifice and risk to themselves. I am honored to work alongside them.”
It was Garland’s first public appearance or comment since agents executed the warrant at Mar-a-Lago Club, taking about a dozen boxes of material after opening a safe and entering a padlocked storage area. The search was one of the most dramatic developments in a cascade of legal investigations of the former president, several of which appear to be growing in intensity.
The investigation into the improper handling of documents began months ago when the National Archives and Records Administration sought the return of material taken to Mar-a-Lago from the White House. Fifteen boxes of documents and items, some of them marked classified, were returned early this year. The archives subsequently asked the Justice Department to investigate.