Trump’s confiscated passports could be a problem for him, legal experts say

Donald Trump has complained that the seizure of his passports by FBI agents has left investigators scrambling to search his Florida resort, but new information about how and where the documents were found could spell big trouble for the former president, legal experts told NBC News.

In a court filing Tuesday challenging Trump’s demand for a special master to classify evidence seized at his Mar-a-Lago property, Justice Department officials disputed his claim that it was excessive to take three passports that were later returned.

Under the terms of the search warrant, the Justice Department said in the filing that “the government seized the contents of a desk drawer containing classified documents and government records along with other documents.”

“The other documents included two official passports, one of which had expired, and a personal passport, which had expired,” it said. “The location of the passports is relevant evidence in an investigation into the unauthorized retention and mismanagement of national defense information.”

NBC News legal analyst Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney, said the reason the passports are “relevant evidence” is clear — they point directly to Trump.

“In most searches you’re looking for identification documents to link a suspect to the evidence you’re looking for — photos, IDs, utility bills. If you find the contraband in the same room as the identification documents, there is a fair inference that the person had dominion and control over the documents,” said McQuade, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School.

According to the Justice Department, the drawer with the classified documents and passports was in Trump’s “office 45” at Mar-a-Lago.

“Finding the passports side by side with the classified documents suggests that he was the one who handled them,” McQuade said.

It also makes it difficult for Trump to argue that movers or aides mishandled the documents or that he was unaware of their presence, McQuade said, arguing, “That’s pretty damning evidence.”

NBC News legal analyst Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor, agreed.

“The two things we always get when we execute search warrants are evidence of a crime and evidence of ownership or possession of information,” Kirschner said. “If there are utility bills at the scene, you seized the bills, not because they are evidence of a crime, but because they are evidence of possession and ownership.”

Trump complained a week after the Aug. 8 investigation that FBI agents “stole my three passports” — just after a Justice Department official emailed Trump’s lawyers saying the Justice Department had the passports and was returning them.

In his filing seeking a special master, Trump’s lawyers argued that upon returning the passports, investigators determined they were “not validly seized.” His legal team responded to the Justice Department’s filing Wednesday night, with arguments on the special primary request set for Thursday.

Trump’s lawyer, Christina Bob, told Fox News last month that the agents’ seizure of the passports “shows the level of audacity they have.”

“I think it shows how aggressive they were, how over the top they were, that they were willing to go around the four corners of the warrant and take whatever they thought was appropriate or they thought they could take,” Bob said.

The government’s filing on Tuesday noted that the search warrant specifically allowed agents to take items that were mixed with “classification-marked documents,” and McQuade and Kirschner agreed that there was probably no reason for the government to keep the passports, which they said that they would have been photographed and copied before being returned to Trump’s lawyers. “You should just be able to document that the passport was found next to the contraband,” Kirschner said.

McQuade said investigators returned the passports “because they got what they needed out of them.”

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