Mar-a-Lago, a security ‘nightmare’ that housed classified records

Classified US government documents were seized from Donald Trump’s sprawling Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida.

Former US President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, Texas.
Mar-a-Lago was used by then-President Donald Trump to host meetings with international leaders [File: Brian Snyder/Reuters]

The seizure of classified US government documents from Donald Trump’s sprawling Mar-a-Lago retreat spotlights the continuing0 national security concerns presented by the former president and the property he dubbed the Winter White House.

A search warrant has shown that Trump is under federal investigation for possible violations of the Espionage Act, which makes it unlawful to spy for another country or mishandle US defence information.

Here’s what you should know about the property that Trump also called his “Southern White House”:

Mar-a-Lago is a mansion and private-members club located in Palm Beach County in Florida.

It has guest rooms, a spa and hotel-style amenities for members.

Trump maintains private quarters on the grounds of the century-old property that are closed off to club members.

Mar a Lago
Former US President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort is seen in Palm Beach, Florida, US, February 8, 2021 [File: Marco Bello/Reuters]

Mar-a-Lago was used by Trump to host meetings with international leaders such as then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The well-heeled members of the club and, members of the public, also attended weddings and fundraising dinners for Trump at Mar-a-Lago.

The Secret Service provided physical security at Mar-a-Lago while Trump was president and afterwards, but they are not responsible for vetting guests or members of the club.

“The foreign visitors there and others who might have connections with foreign governments and foreign agents – creates a significant national security threat,” former Department of Justice (DOJ) official Mary McCord said of the residence.

The DOJ has not provided specific information about how or where the classified documents and photos had been stored at Mar-a-Lago, but the club’s general vulnerabilities have been well documented.

In a high-profile example, Trump huddled in 2017 with Japan’s then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at an outdoor dinner table while guests hovered nearby, listening and taking photos that they later posted on Twitter.

That dinner in 2017 was disrupted by a North Korean missile test, and guests listened as Trump and Abe figured out what to say in response. After issuing a statement, Trump dropped by a wedding party at the club.

“What we saw was Trump be so lax in security that he was having a sensitive meeting regarding a potential war topic where non-US government personnel could observe and photograph,” said Mark Zaid, a lawyer who specialises in national security cases.

“It would have been easy for someone to also have had a device that heard and recorded what Trump was saying, as well.”

White House aides did set up a secure room at Mar-a-Lago for sensitive discussions. That was where Trump decided to launch air raids against Syria for the use of chemical weapons in April 2017.

In 2019, a Chinese woman who passed security checkpoints at the club carrying a thumb drive coded with “malicious” software was arrested for entering a restricted property and making false statements to officials, authorities said at the time.

Then-White House chief of staff John Kelly launched an effort to try to limit who had access to Trump at Mar-a-Lago, but the effort fizzled when Trump refused to cooperate, aides said at the time.

“It’s a nightmarish environment for a careful handling of highly classified information,” said a former US intelligence officer. “It’s just a nightmare.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies, Reuters