Mar-a-Lago – and Trump – have long been of concern to US intelligence

“Mar-a-Lago has been a porous place since Trump declared his candidacy and started winning the primaries several years ago,” said Aki Peritz, a former CIA counterterrorism analyst. “If you were any intelligence, friendly or hostile, worth their salt, they would focus their efforts on this incredibly porous place.”

When Trump left office in January 2021, it was to Mar-a-Lago that he decamped, sore from 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 refuge.

It was also the destination of dozens of boxes, hastily packed up 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 process was rushed, in part because the incumbent president refused to engage in activities that would signal he had lost the election. When it became clear that he would have to leave the White House, the items were quickly packed into boxes and shipped south with no clearly organized system.

“Trump kept a lot of things in his files that weren’t in the regular system or given to him during intelligence briefings,” said John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser. “I can easily imagine those last chaotic days at the White House, since he didn’t think he was going to leave until the last minute, they were just throwing things into boxes, and that included a lot of things that he had accumulated over the four years.”

Some boxes, including some containing classified documents, had ended up at the club after the end of Trump’s presidency. When federal investigators — including the Justice Department’s counterintelligence and export control chief — traveled to Mar-a-Lago in June to discuss the classified documents with Trump and his lawyers, they expressed concern that the room was not properly secured.

Trump’s team added a new lock to 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: Espionage Act violations, obstruction of justice and criminal handling of records governmental.

Items taken after Monday’s search included a leather box containing documents, photo binders, “various top secret documents” and “Info re. President of France”, according to the search warrant. Trump and his allies claimed he used his presidential prerogative to declassify the documents before leaving office, but offered no evidence of a formal process underway.

“My only surprise was that there weren’t even more at Mar-a-Lago,” Bolton said.

A habit of defying norms

Last week was not the first time federal intelligence officials raised concerns about how Trump was keeping government secrets. Almost as soon as he took office, Trump demonstrated a willingness to flout protocols for protecting sensitive information.

In 2017, he spontaneously revealed highly classified information about an Islamic State plot to a group of Russian visitors, including the foreign minister, that the United States had received from Israel. This caused deep anger in the intelligence services of both countries.
When he was tipped off by intelligence officials in 2019 about an explosion in Iran, he then tweeted a highly classified satellite photo of the facility – although he had heard officials’ concerns beforehand that it could reveal American capabilities.

Trump has preferred to receive intelligence updates electronically, according to his third chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, although he has sometimes asked to keep physical documents of classified briefings.

“Once in a while, the president would say, ‘Can I keep this?’ But we had whole teams of people to make sure those documents weren’t forgotten, not taken to the residence. He would use them. It was his right as President of the United States,” Mulvaney said. .

Still, following up on the records was not a priority for Trump, according to several former officials. When he asked to keep sensitive documents, officials sometimes worried about what would happen to the material. When he traveled, aides often followed close behind behind cardboard boxes containing stacks of papers Trump had left behind.

Combine business with pleasure

At Mar-a-Lago, concerns about Trump revealing top government secrets — accidentally or otherwise — were amplified. The property functions as a pool club, spa, restaurant and lodge for its members and their guests. the gold-adorned Donald J. Trump Ballroom can be rented for weddings and other events.

While the Secret Service screens visitors for weapons and checks their names against a list, they are not responsible for safeguarding secret documents or protecting against potential interference.

Members flocked to Trump’s club when he was in town as president, and rules enacted early in his term against taking photos in the dining room were not always strictly adhered to.

This became evident in February 2017, when Trump hosted the late Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, for dinner on the terrace. After a North Korean missile launch interrupted the meal, Trump and Abe huddled with their national security aides in full view of other diners, who chose wedge salads with blue cheese while taking photos of the leaders’ impromptu crisis talks.

Later, Trump’s aides insisted he hid in a secure room – known as the Sensitive Compartment Information Center (SCIF) – to receive updates on the launch, and that he and Abe were just discussing the logistics of their press releases.

Still, the flood of photos posted to social media by Mar-a-Lago members showed the two leaders reviewing documents at their table, as well as aides working on laptops and Trump talking on his cellphone. At one point, staff members used the flashlights on their cellphones to illuminate documents the leaders were reading.

Soon after, new rules came into effect limiting who could be at the club when Trump was there. Reservations were required two weeks in advance, and new limits were placed on the number of guests members were allowed to bring.

Trump returned to SCIF in Mar-a-Lago in the spring of 2017 to discuss launching an airstrike on 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 aides at Mar-a-Lago was their relative inability to discern who exactly he was talking to while there. Compared to the White House, with its strict access lists, it was sometimes unclear even to Trump’s most senior advisers whom he had come into contact with at the club.

Trump’s second chief of staff, John Kelly, worked to limit who Trump had access to Mar-a-Lago, though there was little hope that he or any other aides would be able to completely restrict the President’s conversations with friends and paying Mar-a. -Lago members. Kelly told associates at the time that he was more interested in knowing who Trump was talking to than preventing conversations from happening.

Kelly also worked to implement a more structured system for handling classified documents, although Trump’s cooperation in the system was not always guaranteed.

Manage a variety of risks

While at Mar-a-Lago, Trump did not always use his SCIF when viewing classified documents, according to a person familiar with the matter. And his penchant for sharing what he knew with his interlocutors was a constant source of frustration.

“He was a tough president to support trying to give him the information he needed while protecting the way we collected it so he didn’t accidentally or otherwise speak and mention something an adversary might use. to track down where we had an agent,” said Douglas London, a former CIA counterterrorism official who served in the Trump administration.

London said it was ironic that Trump kept classified documents since the former president “wasn’t a big reader.”

Keeping Mar-a-Lago members’ classified information was one thing; keeping out potential security threats proved to be its own challenge.

In 2019, a 33-year-old businesswoman from Shanghai was arrested for trespassing on the grounds of Trump’s club. At the time of his arrest, Yujing Zhang had in his possession four cell phones, a laptop computer, an external hard drive and a USB flash drive. Prosecutors said they also found a treasure 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 charged with trespassing at Mar-a-Lago later that year. Officials said during the incident, Lu was asked to leave by security before returning to the scene and taking pictures.

It has never been determined what the motivations of either woman were in trying to get into the club. Lu was found not guilty; Zhang was eventually sentenced to eight months in prison.

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