The FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago feels like peak Russiagate. There’s the synchronized press hysteria, moving from one absurd end-of-America “bombshell” to the next, accompanied by dark intonations regarding secrets about to be revealed and blustering accusations of high treason. Donald Trump was said to be hoarding “nuclear documents,” which he planned to peddle for billions to the Saudis. Who’s buying the map of Fort Knox? Does Trump have access to Colonel Sanders’ secret fried chicken recipe, too?
It’s no laughing matter to the American press, or for the partisan operatives and national security bureaucrats who feed them their cues. For them, the Mar-a-Lago raid is Russiagate II: The Palm Beach Papers.
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines’ proposed damage assessment of the documents is a remake of the January 2017 intelligence community assessment which claimed, without evidence, that Vladimir Putin wanted to put Trump in the Oval Office. The extensive redactions on the affidavit the FBI used to get a warrant to raid Trump’s home are akin to the excessive redactions on the application that the FBI showed a secret court in 2016 to get a warrant to spy on the Trump campaign. What was true for the original Russiagate holds here, too: The redactions are designed to hide not state secrets, but government corruption.
The Mar-a-Lago raid feels like Russiagate because, well, it is Russiagate: a conspiracy theory weaponized by the country’s courtier class to serve the interests of a delirious and deracinated oligarchy, spawning daily prophesies of doom fed by an endless supply of national security “leaks” asserting that the former commander-in-chief really was and is a secret Russian agent. And proof of the president’s treachery, chant the priestly keepers of the “collusion” mysteries, will soon be revealed to the public. It is their blanket justification for every past crime and every new banana republic-style abuse of power, accompanied by a drumbeat of ever more outlandish and violent threats.
It is in this context that the FBI’s raid on Mar-a-Lago should be understood: Government records and reports from political and media operatives and bureaucrats who previously starred in Russiagate I give evidence that the FBI raided Trump’s home to seize documents exposing the crimes that the FBI and Justice Department have been committing since 2016. The fact that Russiagate shows no signs of ending anytime soon is bad news for the republic, betrayed from within by a performative elite whose ability to project power outside its gilded bubble requires a steady supply of paranoia, fear, and hysteria.
The story of the Mar-a-Lago raid begins at the end of Trump’s presidency, when he declassified documents related to Russiagate. Those records contain evidence of how the FBI spied on Trump’s campaign, presidential transition team, and administration. The documents reportedly include transcripts of FBI intercepts of Trump aides, a declassified copy of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to collect the electronic communications of Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page, and reports regarding Christopher Steele and Stefan Halper, the two main confidential human sources used by the FBI to spy on Trump’s circle.
Kash Patel, who served in a variety of Pentagon roles and as a principal deputy in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in the Trump administration, has said that 60% of the documents related to Russiagate are already in public view. As lead investigator for the House Intelligence Committee’s probe of the FBI’s illegal investigation of the Trump campaign, Patel helped get vital Russiagate records declassified. When Trump named Patel to the ODNI post, he and acting Director Richard Grenell put more Russiagate documents before the U.S. public in 2020. Patel has told the press that what Trump declassified on Jan. 19, 2021, constitutes the remainder of the Russiagate records—which is what the FBI was apparently after.
So, are the Russiagate documents secret? With hours left in Trump’s presidency, the DOJ raised “privacy concerns” about Trump’s declassification, and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows agreed to submit the documents for a final review. “I am returning the bulk of the binder of declassified documents to the Department of Justice,” Meadows wrote in a memo, “with the instruction that the Department must expeditiously conduct a Privacy Act review under the standards that the Department of Justice would normally apply, redact material appropriately, and release the remaining material with redactions applied.”
The problem, however, is that Biden’s DOJ, which was tasked with conducting that review, is staffed with key operatives who targeted Trump starting in 2016, like Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco. As Barack Obama’s Homeland Security adviser, Monaco met in the White House with Haines, then deputy national security adviser (and former deputy CIA director), and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who is now director of Biden’s Domestic Policy Council, to push the Trump-Russia narrative. As far as Monaco and her confederates were concerned, once Meadows turned over the declassified documents, the national security establishment was in the clear: The documents would never be seen again.
After Trump’s departure, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) demanded Trump hand over papers the former president claimed as his own. Starting in the spring of 2021, Trump’s lawyers and NARA officials went back and forth over certain items, like his correspondence with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and a letter from Obama. Eventually, the Trump team agreed to hand over 15 boxes’ worth of records. On Jan. 18, 2022, NARA retrieved the documents from Mar-a-Lago, including the Kim letters. (Press reports concerning nuclear “secrets” in Trump’s possession seem to be purposeful misrepresentations of his correspondence with the North Korean dictator, with whom he sought to strike a nuclear accord.)
The archives and DOJ tracks crossed on Feb. 9, when NARA told federal law enforcement that the 15 boxes contained classified information. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., made this information public when she wrote a letter to the archives the same day asking if the 15 boxes included classified information. NARA officials responded that they did, and that they were in communication with the Justice Department. The stage was thus set for the Russiagate revival, which began three months later.
In a May 5 article, Breitbart News asked Patel to comment on reports that the former president had been holding classified material at Mar-a-Lago. No, said Patel. He explained that while president, “Trump declassified whole sets of materials.” “The president has unilateral authority to declassify documents,” said Patel. “He exercised it here in full.”
Patel told Breitbart that he wouldn’t get into specifics about the documents that Trump had officially made public. Despite the fact that the material was no longer classified, the former federal prosecutor suspected that the press would nonetheless accuse him of illegally disclosing government secrets. So he vaguely indicated what the documents contained.
“It’s information that Trump felt spoke to matters regarding everything from Russiagate to the Ukraine impeachment fiasco to major national security matters of great public importance,” said Patel, “anything the president felt the American people had a right to know is in there and more.”
It seems that the FBI and DOJ may have interpreted Patel to mean that he had seen the declassified Russiagate documents at Mar-A-Lago. Maybe they thought there were copies of the records. They’d demonized Trump for six years—after all that time, they likely came to believe the image of him they’d pushed through the media. He was capable of committing any outrage—even copying the documents to protect himself, which, as seasoned bureaucrats, is precisely what they would have done. And hadn’t Patel intimated that among the papers Trump kept at Mar-a-Lago were the very records exposing their crimes?
On May 11, less than a week after the Breitbart story, the DOJ obtained a grand jury subpoena to search Trump’s home. But before visiting Mar-a-Lago, they made a “preliminary review” of the 15 boxes of NARA material that they’d ignored for four months.
According to the affidavit, between May 16 and 18, a team of FBI agents poured through the documents. But they couldn’t have found any of the Russiagate documents Patel had referred to in the Breitbart article, because, according to a July 2022 article by reporter John Solomon, the archives did not have the declassified documents.
Did Trump have them? It seems the Justice Department was determined to find out. On June 3, a DOJ official and three FBI agents visited Mar-a-Lago on official business. Trump hailed them cheerfully. “I appreciate the job you’re doing,” he said to the law enforcement officials. “Anything you need, let us know.”
The agents asked to see the storage locker where Trump kept mementos from his term in office. Shortly after the visit, DOJ sent a letter to his aides instructing them to further secure the facility. Trump’s staff complied by adding a second lock. With DOJ trying to flush Trump out by showing up at his door, they wanted to find out who went into the facility after they officially warned that the facility wasn’t secure. It seems they were looking for someone in particular.
On June 21, Patel announced that he and Solomon had been appointed by Trump to obtain the declassified Russiagate documents from the archives: Patel said he was going to post them on his website. DOJ, however, already knew what Patel and Solomon would only discover a month later: The archives didn’t have the declassified documents. So if Patel said he would post them, law enforcement may have wondered, where would he get them from?
The answer must have seemed clear: Mar-a-Lago. On June 22, the Justice Department subpoenaed surveillance video footage of the storage locker. According to a New York Times story, sourced to “people familiar with the tapes,” “video showed boxes being moved out of the storage room sometime around the contact from the Justice Department.” Video “also showed boxes being slipped into different containers.” With this, the FBI was ready to move on Trump’s home.
Still, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland deliberated for weeks about whether to raid a a former president’s home. It had never been done before. Was it his destiny to be the man who ushered the United States into such dangerous territory? But the pressure to get Trump was building. It likely came from below (Monaco) and above: President Biden told aides he wanted his top law enforcement officer to target Trump. Garland finally resolved to pull the trigger. On Aug. 5, the FBI got the warrant for the raid, which took place three days later.
So was the FBI after what they believed to be Trump’s secret stash of Russiagate documents? The warrant was drawn so broadly that it allowed the agents to seize any document from Trump’s term in the White House. But an Aug. 26 New York Times story confirmed that the FBI was “spurred” to act after discovering Trump had retained “documents related to the use of ‘clandestine human sources,’”and other documents related to “foreign intercepts collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.”
Those at all familiar with Russiagate will recognize these keywords, employed by the same media organization that won a 2018 Pulitzer Prize for partnering with U.S. intelligence services to destabilize and delegitimize Trump’s presidency. The descriptions in the article also line up with what Trump reportedly declassified before he left the White House.
Yet if what the FBI was after were the Russiagate documents that it imagined were hidden somewhere at Mar-a-Lago, it’s not clear if the agents found them. According to the Times story, the safe in Trump’s closet “did not contain the materials investigators sought.” Maybe the materials were somewhere else. Perhaps Trump never had them. Trump allies I’ve spoken with don’t think he has the documents.
Garland’s dilemma now is whether to risk finding out the truth. Press reports suggest that he is undecided about indicting Trump. That makes sense—it would likely sow chaos across the country and, Garland must worry, perhaps force Trump’s hand. For if the former president does have the documents, in whatever form, and posts them, it might bring the house down on the U.S. national security apparatus and the Democratic administration that it shields.
The effect of the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago is therefore to obscure the real scandal: U.S. spies committed a series of crimes in their effort to unseat a U.S. president, and then ignored the lawful orders of that president in order to keep their crimes hidden from the American public.
What is preserving the stability of the United States at present is therefore something like a Mexican standoff. Does Trump actually have the documents? If so, will he put them before the public? Will Garland indict him, and risk finding out? Given the Biden administration’s tendency to instrumentalize the violence of its rhetoric and turn federal bureaucracies loose on its political opponents, it is likely that the standoff will not hold for long.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).