The F.B.I.’s search of former President Donald J. Trump’s home in Florida on Monday continued to rock Washington and, more broadly, American politics, amid a swirl of questions about what led the Justice Department to take such a stunning step.
The search came after a visit this spring to Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s private club and residence in Palm Beach, Fla., by federal agents — including a Justice Department counterintelligence official — to discuss materials that the former president had improperly taken with him when he left the White House.
Mr. Trump was briefly present for that visit, as was at least one of his lawyers, according to people familiar with the situation.
Those materials contained many pages of classified documents, according to a person familiar with their contents. By law, presidential materials must be preserved and sent to the National Archives when a president leaves office. It remained unclear what specific materials agents might have been seeking on Monday or why the Justice Department and the F.B.I. decided to go ahead with the search now.
Mr. Trump had delayed returning 15 boxes of material requested by officials with the National Archives for many months, doing so only in January, when the threat of action to retrieve them grew. The case was referred to the Justice Department by the archives early this year.
Image F.B.I. agents searched Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald J. Trump’s private club and residence in Florida. Mr. Trump said they had broken open a safe. Credit… MediaPunch, via Associated Press
In carrying out the search, federal agents broke open a safe, the former president said.
The search was the latest remarkable turn in the long-running investigations into Mr. Trump’s actions before, during and after his presidency — and even as he weighs announcing another candidacy for the White House.
It came as the Justice Department has stepped up its separate inquiry into Mr. Trump’s efforts to remain in office after his defeat in the 2020 election and as he also faces an accelerating criminal inquiry in Georgia and civil actions in New York.
Mr. Trump has long cast the F.B.I. as a tool of Democrats who have been out to get him. The search set off a furious reaction among his supporters in the Republican Party and on the far right.
Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader in the House, suggested that he intended to investigate Attorney General Merrick B. Garland if Republicans took control of the chamber in November. A delegation of House Republicans was scheduled to travel to Mr. Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, N.J., for a dinner with him on Tuesday night.
Aggressive language was pervasive on the right as Monday night turned into Tuesday morning.
“This. Means. War,” the Gateway Pundit, a pro-Trump outlet, wrote in an online post that was quickly amplified by a Telegram account connected to Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s onetime political adviser.
The F.B.I. would have needed to persuade a judge that it had probable cause that a crime had been committed, and that agents might find evidence at Mar-a-Lago, to get a search warrant. Proceeding with a search on a former president’s home would almost surely have required sign-off from top officials at the bureau and at the Justice Department.
The search, however, does not mean prosecutors have determined that Mr. Trump committed a crime.
Despite the historic and politically incendiary nature of the search, neither the F.B.I. nor the Justice Department has publicly commented or explained the basis for its action, in line with their policies of not discussing active investigations.
Mr. Trump was in the New York area at the time of the search. “Another day in paradise,” he said on Monday night during a telephone rally for Sarah Palin, who is running for a congressional seat in Alaska.
Eric Trump, one of his sons, told Fox News that he was the one who informed his father that the search was taking place, and that the warrant was related to presidential documents.
Mr. Trump campaigned for president in 2016 criticizing Hillary Clinton’s practice of maintaining a private email server for government-related messages while she was the secretary of state. He was known throughout his term to rip up official material that was intended to be held for presidential archives. One person familiar with his habits said that included classified material that was shredded in his bedroom and elsewhere.
The search was at least in part for whether any records remained at Mar-a-Lago, a person familiar with it said. It took place on Monday morning, the person said, although the former president said agents were still there many hours later.
“After working and cooperating with the relevant government agencies, this unannounced raid on my home was not necessary or appropriate,” Mr. Trump said, maintaining it was an effort to stop him from running for president in 2024. “Such an assault could only take place in broken, third-world countries.”
“They even broke into my safe!” he wrote.
Mr. Trump did not share any details about what the F.B.I. agents said they were searching for.
The White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said on Tuesday that President Biden had not been briefed by the Justice Department before the F.B.I.’s search.
“The president and the White House learned about this F.B.I. search from public reports,” said Ms. Jean-Pierre, who declined to comment on any potential political ramifications.
Aides to Mr. Biden said on Monday they were stunned by the development and had learned of it from Twitter.
The search came as the Justice Department has also been stepping up questioning of former Trump aides who had been witnesses to discussions and planning in the White House of Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn his election loss.
Mr. Trump has been the focus of questions asked by federal prosecutors in connection with a scheme to send “fake” electors to Congress for the certification of the Electoral College. The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol also continues its work and is interviewing witnesses this week.
The law governing the preservation of White House materials, the Presidential Records Act, lacks teeth, but criminal statutes can come into play, especially in the case of classified material.
Criminal codes, which carry jail time, can be used to prosecute anyone who “willfully injures or commits any depredation against any property of the United States” and anyone who “willfully and unlawfully conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates or destroys” government documents.
Samuel R. Berger, a national security adviser to President Bill Clinton, pleaded guilty in 2015 to a misdemeanor charge for removing classified material from a government archive. In 2007, Donald Keyser, an Asia expert and former senior State Department official, was sentenced to prison after he confessed to keeping more than 3,000 sensitive documents — ranging from the classified to the top secret — in his basement.
In 1999, the C.I.A. announced it had suspended the security clearance of its former director, John M. Deutch, after concluding that he had improperly handled national secrets on a desktop computer at his home.
In January of this year, the archives retrieved 15 boxes that Mr. Trump took with him to Mar-a-Lago from the White House residence when his term ended. The boxes included material subject to the Presidential Records Act, which requires that all documents and records pertaining to official business be turned over to the archives.
The items in the boxes included documents, mementos, gifts and letters. The archives did not describe the classified material it found other than to say that it was “classified national security information.”
Because the National Archives “identified classified information in the boxes,” the agency “has been in communication with the Department of Justice,” David S. Ferriero, the national archivist, told Congress at the time.
Federal prosecutors subsequently began a grand jury investigation, according to two people briefed on the matter. Prosecutors issued a subpoena earlier this year to the archives to obtain the boxes of classified documents, according to the two people familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.
The authorities also made interview requests to people who worked in the White House in the final days of Mr. Trump’s presidency, according to one of the people.
In the spring, a small coterie of federal agents — including at least one involved in counterintelligence — visited Mar-a-Lago in search of some documents, according to a person familiar with the meeting.
The question of how Mr. Trump has handled sensitive material and documents he received as president loomed throughout his time in the White House, and beyond.
He was known to rip up pieces of official paper that he was handed, forcing officials to tape them back together. And an upcoming book by a New York Times reporter reveals that staff members would find clumps of torn-up paper clogging a toilet, and believed he had thrown them in.
The question of how Mr. Trump handled classified material is complicated, because, as president, he had the authority to declassify any government information. It is unclear whether Mr. Trump, before leaving office, had declassified materials the archives discovered in the boxes. Under federal law, he no longer maintains the ability to declassify documents after leaving office.
While in office, he invoked the power to declassify information several times as his administration publicly released materials that helped him politically, particularly on issues like the investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia.
Toward the end of the administration, Mr. Trump ripped pictures that intrigued him out of the President’s Daily Brief — a compendium of often classified information about potential national security threats — but it is unclear whether he took them to Florida. In one prominent example of how he dealt with classified material, Mr. Trump in 2019 took a highly classified spy satellite image of an Iranian missile launch site, declassified it and then released the photo on Twitter.
Earlier this year, Kash Patel, a former Defense Department senior official and Trump loyalist whom Mr. Trump named as one of his representatives to engage with the National Archives, suggested to the right-wing website Breitbart that Mr. Trump had declassified the documents before leaving the White House and that the proper markings simply had not been adjusted.
Local television crews showed supporters of Mr. Trump gathered near Mar-a-Lago on Monday night, some of them being aggressive toward reporters.
Mr. Trump made clear in his statement that he saw potential political value in the search, something some of his advisers echoed.
His political team began sending fund-raising solicitations about the search late on Monday evening.
Jonathan Martin , Luke Broadwater , Glenn Thrush and Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting.