Then President-elect Donald Trump answers questions from the media on December 28, 2016 at Mar-a-Lago. Photo by DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images
Federal investigators maintained a stony silence about exactly what kind of classified documents they were looking for in their dramatic search of former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago golf club and residence on Monday. And yet whatever they were, those ultra-sensitive items, seemingly, sat around for over a year at a south Florida golf club notorious for its security problems and interlopers.
Trump’s club was once blasted by a former FBI agent as arguably “the worst counterintelligence nightmare the country has faced since the Cold War.” Politico declared the Palm Beach venue “heaven—for spies.” In 2017, Trump was spotted conducting sensitive foreign policy discussions with the Japanese prime minister at a table on the club’s back patio in full view of other guests eating dinner. For a membership fee of $200,000, plus $14,000 annual dues, well-heeled members prowled the grounds, guzzled cocktails, mingled with the MAGA elite—and got up to who knows what kind of mischief. The club’s dubious reputation for security lapses raises another question, beyond merely what the Feds were looking for: Who the hell else got to rummage through Trump’s files, before the FBI showed up?Even a brief review of the club’s recent past points toward unsettling possibilities.
In one infamous 2019 incident, Yujing Zhang, a 32-year-old Chinese woman, was arrested after evading security. She was carrying five cell phone SIM cards, a hard drive, nine USB thumb drives including one primed with malware, and a device that could detect electronic signals. She had two Chinese passports, and investigators found a device for detecting hidden cameras when they searched her hotel room. Zhang raised suspicions when she told a receptionist she’d come to attend an event hosted by the “United Nations Chinese American Association”—an organization that does not exist. She was convicted of trespassing and lying to Secret Service agents, and eventually deported to China in late 2021 after serving an eight-month sentence.
The Zhang episode prompted high-level Congressional Democrats to urge the FBI to look into security measures at the club. “This latest incident raises very serious questions regarding security vulnerabilities at Mar-a-Lago, which foreign intelligence services have reportedly targeted,” top Senate Democrats including then Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner wrote in a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray.A second Chinese national was arrested while trying to get into Mar-a-Lago that same year. Jing Lu, 56, was eventually acquitted of trespassing after telling the jury, speaking in Mandarin through an interpreter, that she didn’t understand a security guard who told her to leave the premises. But she was convicted of resisting a police officer without violence.Federal authorities opened an investigation into possible Chinese intelligence operations at the club in 2019, the Miami Herald reported.
Clever spies itching to probe the club’s inner workings needn’t personally enter the venue, of course, so long as they could find one of the club’s hundreds of members willing to pull off an inside job. A list of the club’s 500 members has leaked in the past. They included metals and mining magnate William Koch, and a billionaire named Thomas Peterffy who spent over $8 million on TV ads warning of creeping socialism in 2012, according to a New York Times report in 2017.Members sat close enough to Trump, for example, to overhear him discuss a North Korean missile launch with former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in February 2017. “Trump turned his table into an al fresco situation room,” a reporter for the Washington Post noted at the time.
The club’s digital security has also been found lacking. Shortly after Trump assumed the presidency, a team of journalists from ProPublica and Gizmodo piloted a 17-foot motorboat up to the back lawn of Mar-a-Lago and aimed “a 2-foot wireless antenna that resembled a potato gun toward the club.”“Within a minute, we spotted three weakly encrypted Wi-Fi networks. We could have hacked them in less than five minutes, but we refrained,” they concluded. Then there are the reports that Trump himself has ripped up documents—or even flushed them down the toilet. This week, Axios printed pictures alleging to be official records bearing Trump’s handwriting at the bottom of toilet bowls.
What kind of documents did investigators feel were so important that they needed to send dozens of FBI agents to comb through the residence of a former president for the first time in U.S. history? In January, the National Archives and Record Administration retrieved 15 boxes from Mar-a-Lago that were full of files Trump took with him from the White House. The agency said it communicated with the Department of Justice about the matter. Some of the files were classified national security documents. The pile included letters from North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un—the ones Trump once called “love letters.”
Trump staffers told the agency that they were still looking for other presidential records that belonged to the national archives. Trump’s eldest son, Eric Trump, said on Monday night that “more than 30” FBI agents descended on the club earlier that day. Eric Trump said that the FBI told him that the bureau wanted to find out if Trump “had any documents in his possession” that should have been handed over. Federal officials typically obtain any documents they need through a subpoena. But the decision to escalate to a full-on FBI search points to both the importance of the items in question, and to a perception that Trump might not give up the goods.“For me, the biggest takeaway is that the Attorney General of the United States had to make the determination that it was appropriate in this situation to proceed by search warrant because they could not be confident that the former president of the United States would comply with a grand-jury subpoena,” Andrew Weissmann, a former prosecutor who worked on the Mueller investigation, told the New Yorker. Trump, of course, has brushed off concerns about security at the golf property. “No, I’m not concerned at all,” Trump told reporters in 2019. “We have very good control.”Follow Greg Walters on Twitter.