The photo of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, annotated


Perhaps the most intriguing piece of the court filing submitted Tuesday night by the Justice Department did not involve any legal argument or articulation of the department’s potential case against former President Donald Trump. Instead, it was a photograph showing a series of documents laid out on the floor of an unidentified room.

Clearly visible on more than half a dozen of them: rating markings.

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The government’s months-long effort to recover the documents Trump took with him when he left the White House does not depend on the classification of those documents. But the question of whether Trump filed material with him at his Mar-a-Lago resort has captured the public’s attention. The photo published by the government seems to answer this question quite affirmatively.

There are details in the photograph that merit closer examination, details that are not immediately apparent to the casual observer. Below, we’ve picked out some of those details, exploring what they show – and what other questions they raise.

An immediate question is where, exactly, the photo was taken.

In its filing, the Department of Justice orients the photo – Attachment F to the filing – as follows:

“Some of the documents had stained cover sheets indicating their classification status. See, for example, Appendix F (FBI redacted photograph of some classified documents and cover sheets recovered from an ‘Office 45’ container). »

The material presented is of Trump’s personal office at Mar-a-Lago, but the photo itself does not appear to have been taken there.

Consider the detail at the bottom left of the photo. We see three distinctive elements: a busy rug pattern, some kind of dark blue fringed fabric – possibly a curtain – and white cupboards with a raised pattern.

There are various Mar-a-Lago photo galleries online (see the Atlanta Journal-Constitution one, for example), but there is no obvious match for the items shown in the photo. A photo of Trump’s office, tweeted by his former aide Stephen Miller last year, shows a very different aesthetic from that of Annex F.

The rug certainly has the stain-hiding aesthetic common in hotels or event spaces like Mar-a-Lago, but it’s not immediately clear where the photo was taken. (If you have a preview of the photo location, let us know.)

There is, however, a good indicator that it was at Mar-a-Lago: in an article on Truth Social on Wednesday morning, Trump suggested that it was.

There is, of course, no indication that the FBI was trying to suggest that Trump created a mess. Instead, investigators were doing what investigators do: documenting what they found.

How the government documented the scene

The photograph also includes at least two clues to this documentation.

The first is the use of a photo scale, an instrument that can be installed to allow viewers to gauge the size of objects in a photo. You can see it under the document at the bottom center of the full photo.

Then there’s the little marker to the right of this document, the one that says “2A.”

This appears to be a reference to how investigators documented material recovered from Mar-a-Lago. In the property receipt he provided to Trump’s attorneys on the day of the search, he identified the recovered items with numeric codes. Item “2A” is listed as “Miscellaneous Classified Documents/TS/SCI”. (More on these abbreviations in a moment.)

This receipt suggests that the displayed documents were found in the container listed under item 2: “Box of Leather Bound Documents”. This box does not appear to be included in the photo.

Now we get to the heart of the matter: what the investigators found.

Let’s start with this document at the bottom center of the photo. It has a cover page indicating that it is classified as “secret”. The government has default cover sheets for different classification levels, ranging from a blue “confidential” classification to an orange “top secret.”

The bottom-center document has an orange-red cover page and is marked “secret” – but also has other markings that provide more information about its classification.

“SCI”, for example, indicates that the material is considered “compartmentalized sensitive information” – information that is further restricted to a subset of those with “secret” level clearance.

Then there is the “UNTIL HCS-P/SI/TK” flag. “Up to” suggests that the document includes material reaching each of the following classification levels.

  • “HCS-P” indicates material obtained from human sources, which usually means informants or spies. (There’s more information about the “-P” qualifier here.)
  • “SI” refers to communications intelligence, typically material gathered from monitoring online or telephone sources.
  • “TK” is short for “talent keyhole”, usually referring to satellite surveillance.

Other documents shown in the photo have visible dates, which offer their own information.

Documents 1 and 2, for example, appear to be dated August 26, 2018. (The resolution of the photograph provided by the Department of Justice does not provide much additional clarity.) It is unclear what might have happened this day that Trump would have liked to preserve. (Again: If you have a preview, let us know.)

The third document is more interesting. First, it bears its own rating marking, written in text across the top of the sheet of paper. But, in this case, even that marking was masked by the government before the photograph was published.

The date appears to be Wednesday, May 9, 2018. That day, Bloomberg News notes, was a day after Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

Most other documents are obscured or redacted, limiting what we can learn. But there’s this box on the right, the one in which you can see a number of picture frames, one of which shows a Time magazine cover.

This cover is from the magazine’s March 4, 2019, issue, showing the crowded Democratic field hoping to challenge Trump in the 2020 election. Notice the frame: beveled and gold-colored, it matches the framed images featured in Stephen Miller’s photo of the Trump’s office.

The Keeping Time magazine covers are very typical for Trump, who displayed magazine covers at his properties. Unlike others, this one was real.


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