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What we can read between the lines of the redacted Mar-a-Lago affidavit

The many (many) redactions reveal the scope of the DOJ's concerns — but keep Trump from seeking revenge.

The affidavit used to obtain a search warrant for former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence was unsealed Friday afternoon by a federal court in Florida. Reading between the many, many blacked out lines of the affidavit and reading the Department of Justice’s related filings shows just how serious the FBI’s investigation is, how flimsy some of Trump’s legal arguments are and how worried the government is that obstruction of justice is yet occurring.

The Aug. 5 document was heavily redacted, with roughly two-thirds of its paragraphs at least partially obscured. Even so, it makes slightly clearer the timeline of events leading to the unprecedented search of a former president’s home. The affidavit also clarifies why the FBI was so worried about what remained at Mar-a-Lago after Trump handed over 15 boxes to the National Archives and Records Administration in January. “Of most significant concern was that highly classified records were unfoldered, intermixed with other records, and otherwise unproperly [sic] identified," NARA’s referral letter to the FBI in February read.

In those boxes surrendered in January were “184 unique documents bearing classification markings,” including 25 that were marked “Top Secret.” Those recovered Top Secret documents marked “HUMINT Control System,” or "HCS,” and “Special Intelligence,” or “SI” were most likely to be a national security threat.

HCS is information recovered from spies in the field, any of whom could be threatened or flipped if their identity is revealed. Special Intelligence is material derived from tapping into foreign communications, including phones, emails and other messages. Exposure of those sources would compromise any further information that could have been gleaned from them. The unredacted portions of the affidavit do not make clear how many documents with each label were recovered.

The document also shows that DOJ was ready to knock down the arguments already coming from Trump’s camp, like the claim from former Trump administration lackey Kash Patel that Trump had already declassified all of the documents that were recovered. That same claim was made in a May 25 letter attached to the affidavit from Trump lawyer Evan Corcoran.

But as the affidavit makes clear, the term “classified information” isn’t entirely relevant here. Instead, it explains that one of the relevant statutes that authorities believe may have been violated “criminalizes the unlawful retention of ‘information relating to the national defense.’” So even if a document has been “declassified” it is still not legal to possess documents that likely contain national defense information (NDI) without properly securing them.

Why so much of the document is redacted is newsworthy itself and almost more revealing that the text that remains.

We can make guesses about what information is still being withheld. Given what we know, the redactions are likely obscuring the actual events of a June visit to Mar-a-Lago from Jay Bratt, the FBI’s counterintelligence director. So far, we’ve only heard Trump’s account of that visit. His lawyers claimed in a filing last week that an agent accompanying Bratt told Trump, “You did not need to show us the storage room, but we appreciate it. Now it all makes sense.” Given the DOJ’s concerns and the search warrant that was executed after that visit, that story feels all the more unlikely.

Why so much of the document is redacted is newsworthy itself and almost more revealing than the text that remains. Before unsealing the affidavit the court released the DOJ’s explanation for those redactions, which itself was heavily redacted. The reasons given included concerns about potential witness tampering or harassment, destruction of evidence and the safety of law enforcement personnel.

Those concerns aren’t hypothetical amid the rhetorical attacks against the FBI that Trump and his allies have launched since the search. Right-wing media published unredacted copies of the search warrant, which contained the names of the FBI officials who signed off on it. Since then, “FBI agents who have been publicly identified in connection with this investigation have received repeated threats of violence from members of the public,” the Justice Department noted.

Judge Bruce Reinhart agreed that “the government has well-founded concerns that steps may be taken to frustrate or otherwise interfere with this investigation if facts in the affidavit were prematurely disclosed.” That is why so much of the section laying out probable cause is still obscured, to prevent a subject of the investigation (including Trump) from seeing the full “road map” of its investigation. That the affidavit’s contents were enough to grant a warrant in the first place means the DOJ convinced Reinhart both that evidence would be destroyed if Trump is given a chance to know what is still being investigated and that it’s likely “a statute prohibiting obstruction of justice has been violated.”

In all, the information released Friday strikes the balance between what the public has a right to know and what the FBI and DOJ says it must keep secret. None of what was revealed Friday makes Trump look good, despite his repeated entreaties to release the affidavit and warrant in full. Even former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove made clear in a Fox News appearance that Trump was in the wrong for holding onto the documents recovered so far.

The former president is likely to be rattled at this point — but without learning where the FBI got its information, he’s only able to lash out in every direction, more likely to injure himself than anyone cooperating with the investigation.