FBI agents executed a search warrant at former President Donald Trump’s Florida home on Monday, taking about a dozen boxes of material after opening a safe and entering a padlocked storage area.

Trump and his allies have denounced the search as unlawful and politically motivated, but provided no evidence to back that up and have refused to share a copy of the warrant with the public.

There are still many unknowns surrounding the purpose of the search and what crime law enforcement agents suspect may be tied to the materials they sought at the Mar-a-Lago resort.

People familiar with the investigation, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss it, said the dramatic decision to obtain a warrant reflected growing concern that the former president or his lawyers and aides had not returned key documents and other government property from his time in the White House.

Here’s what you need to know about search warrants and what they may signify in an investigation:

What is a search warrant?

A search warrant is permission from a judge allowing law enforcement to search a location or item for evidence that could be connected with a crime. These warrants are typically narrow in scope, so police or federal agents must know what they are looking for and where they are searching for it before they execute a warrant.


The barriers to obtain search warrants are not particularly high. Law enforcement must present probable cause that evidence of a crime exists at a specific location, said to Stephen Saltzburg, a law professor at George Washington University. This is far easier than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” threshold needed to convict someone in court.

“There is no mathematical equation for it,” Saltzburg said. “The Supreme Court has never put a percentage on it. The odds can be less than 50% [that there is incriminating evidence].”

On its own, a search warrant is not proof of any crime – only that a judge believes that law enforcement has probable cause to search something as they investigate potential wrongdoing.

“A reasonable person would have to think there is evidence of crime in that location,” said William Otis, a former federal prosecutor in Virginia.

Does searching a former president’s house mean a higher threshold?

Legally, there is nothing that says investigators need to meet a higher standard to obtain a search warrant as part of an investigation involving a former president. In practice however, according to legal experts, investigators would want to ensure there is a very high likelihood that the evidence exists before they seek such a warrant.

“It’s not because the constitution requires it,” Saltzburg said. “It’s because any judge would know it’s a political hot potato.”


How do investigators obtain a warrant?

Investigators must submit an application to a judge that includes a sworn statement – an affidavit – detailing what evidence they are looking for and what crime they believe was committed. If a judge believes investigators have probable cause to search the property, he or she would sign off on it.

“You can’t go on a fishing expedition. You cannot hold up a warrant to search for documents if you are really there to search for drugs,” said Kel McClanahan, executive director of National Security Counselors, a nonprofit law firm. “Search warrants are strictly criminal, and in order to get a search warrant you need to convince a magistrate judge that someone committed a crime.”

How is a warrant different from a subpoena?

A subpoena is a court-ordered request to hand over property or to show up in court. But unlike a search warrant, law enforcement doesn’t show up to take the property. The person subpoenaed therefore has an opportunity to not comply, or could move or destroy the evidence officials are seeking.

Saltzburg said the FBI likely had clear reasons for seeking a warrant instead of a subpoena to obtain what agents were looking for at Mar-a-Lago.

“They could have done a subpoena, but the fact that they didn’t suggests they felt that, if they did, bad things would happen to the documents they were looking for,” Saltzburg said.

Search warrants could also allow investigators to take possession of classified documents without requiring lawyers for the person in possession of those documents – who may not have the requisite security clearance – to search through and hand over those documents.


The Washington Post reported earlier this week that over months of discussions between Trump’s team and government officials about whether documents were still missing, some officials came to suspect Trump’s representatives were not truthful at times, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

Can the public see the warrant?

In most cases, search warrants are open to the public. But judges will often seal warrants if the signed affidavit within them reveal witnesses and details that could compromise an ongoing investigation.

The Mar-a-Lago warrant, which would give a window in to what investigators were looking for at the property and what crime they believe may have been committed, is currently sealed. Trump and his lawyers have a copy of the warrant, but so far have said they will not release it. Investigators have said little about the scope of the investigation and what crimes they believe may have been committed.

On Wednesday, a U.S. magistrate judge gave federal prosecutors until 5 p.m. Monday to respond to a request by the Albany Times-Union and other news organizations to unseal the search warrant.

In a letter made public by U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart, Brendan Lyons, managing editor of the Albany news organization, cited the public’s First Amendment and common law right to inspect judicial records and noted that courts have ruled “it is inappropriate to indefinitely seal a warrant affidavit.”

What is an inventory list?

Investigators write a list of all the materials they took from the person or property. They would then give a copy of the inventory list to the person they searched, or his or her lawyers. They would file a second copy of the inventory list in court.


If agents took classified documents from the Trump property, the inventory list would likely not be very specific, Saltzburg said. Agents would write it with the assumption that it would eventually become public and therefore would not reveal any classified specifics.

“This one would be tricky, and they are not going to list certain kinds of documents,” Saltzburg said. “There is a limit on how detailed they would go on the inventory if there are classified documents.”

What happens next?

The execution of a search warrant is just one step in the investigation of a potential crime, according to Otis. He said the Justice Department is rightfully quiet about ongoing investigations, so it is hard to determine where they are in the probe and how much evidence they have collected.

“No one knows exactly what the next step is,” Otis said. “Search warrants are an investigative tool. We do not know for sure that there is going to be a criminal case against Trump.”

Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.