A “large group” of federal agents has entered Donald Trump’s Florida residence in an “unannounced raid”, the former US president said on his social media channel on Monday.
Officials from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) entered the property in a move that “was not necessary or appropriate”, Trump wrote in a statement.
The circumstances surrounding the raid were not clear.
Trump was not at Mar a Lago when the officers arrived. He was seen leaving Trump Tower in New York City on Monday, where he also has a home.
The search, which the FBI and Justice Department did not immediately confirm, marks a dramatic escalation in a months-long investigation into how classified documents ended up in more than a dozen boxes located at Mar-a-Lago earlier this year. It occurred amid a separate but intensifying investigation into efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and added to the potential legal peril for Trump as he prepares to run again for the presidency in 2024.
In February, classified materials were found in 15 boxes of official documents related to the Trump presidency that were retrieved at Mar-a-Lago by the US National Archives. Under US law, all communication regarding presidential duties has to be preserved. The National Archives had referred the incident to the US Justice Department.
Justice Department spokesperson Dena Iverson declined to comment on the raid, including about whether Attorney General Merrick Garland had personally authorised the search, the Associated Press reported.
Trump claimed his home, the Mar-a-Lago estate, was “under siege, raided and occupied” calling it a “weaponization of the Justice System” that could only happen in “broken, Third-World Countries”.
He alleged in his statement the FBI move was backed by Democrats who “desperately” do not want him to run for reelection in 2024.
“They even broke into my safe!,” he said.
Trump’s son Eric Trump told Fox News that the search was related to the documents sought by the National Archives.
Melanie Sloan, a former prosecutor and an expert in government ethics, told Al Jazeera it was difficult to know the reasons for the raid without a search warrant or affidavit, but she said the circumstances suggested it had to be “more than run of the mill”.
“He can be prosecuted for improperly taking and destroying documents,” she said. “That is not something that is prosecuted frequently and to prosecute the former president for it would be a very big deal so there must be some kind of issue about the content of these documents and what is in them that he is attempting to destroy.”
There are numerous federal laws in the US that govern the handling of classified records and sensitive government documents, including statutes that make it a crime to remove such material and retain it at an unauthorised location.
Although a search warrant does not suggest that criminal charges are near or even expected, to get the warrant officials must first convince a judge that they believe they will find evidence that a crime occurred.
“The FBI would not have sought a search warrant, (and) a judge would not have signed the search warrant if there weren’t probable cause for the FBI to search the premises for documents that would disclose a serious crime,” Richard Painter of the University of Minnesota Law School and a former ethics adviser to George W Bush, told Al Jazeera.
Two people familiar with the matter, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation, said the search happened earlier on Monday. Agents were also looking to see if Trump had additional presidential records or any classified documents at the estate.
White House aides have recounted that Trump often tore up documents that later had to be taped together.
Photographs made public on Monday morning reportedly showed handwritten notes by Trump ripped apart at the bottom of a toilet bowl. Axios first reported the allegations it said are included in an upcoming book by New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman.
The former president is also connected with investigations over potentially illegal business practices, his efforts to overturn the 2020 US elections, and his role in the January 6, 2021 assault on the US Capitol.
Several former advisers and staff have testified in the congressional inquiry over the origins of the riot on the Capitol, with much of the focus on the former president, his actions leading up to it and his refusal for hours to rein in his mob of supporters as they stormed the Capitol.