What Is the Espionage Act? Legal Experts Think Trump May Have Violated Law

Prominent legal experts speculate that former President Donald Trump may be suspected of violating a range of laws, including the Espionage Act, by taking classified documents from the White House and keeping them improperly at his Mar-a-Lago resort residence in Florida.

The FBI, with the approval of Attorney General Merrick Garland, on Monday conducted a raid at Mar-a-Lago, reportedly retrieving many sensitive government documents from Trump's residence. The search warrant was approved by a federal judge, who assessed that there was probable cause to carry out the raid. Trump has blasted the FBI raid, alleging that it is part of a partisan "witch hunt" against him.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported that the documents included information related to nuclear weapons, and The New York Times said the raid aimed to recover documents "related to some of the most highly classified programs" in the country. Sources told Newsweek that the raid was based largely on information from an informer, who was able to identify what classified documents Trump still had, as well as where they were located.

Donald Trump
Legal experts have suggested that former President Donald Trump may have violated the Espionage Act, leading to the FBI raid on his Mar-a-Lago residence. Above, Trump waves while walking to a vehicle outside of Trump Tower in New York City on August 10. STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

Some legal experts have posited that Trump may have been in violation of the Espionage Act. The law was first enacted by Congress in 1917, during World War I.

Under the law, it became prohibited to obtain information, record pictures or copy descriptions of "any information related to the national defense with intent or reason to believe that the information may be used for the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation," according to the First Amendment Encyclopedia on the Middle Tennessee State University's website.

While the name of the law implies that it specifically targets spies, the statute is broader and applies to the mishandling of sensitive national security information as well. Part of it states:

"Whoever, being entrusted with or having lawful possession or control of any document, writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, photographic negative, blueprint, plan, map, model, instrument, appliance, note, or information, relating to the national defense, (1) through gross negligence permits the same to be removed from its proper place of custody or delivered to anyone in violation of his trust, or to be lost, stolen, abstracted, or destroyed, or (2) having knowledge that the same has been illegally removed from its proper place of custody or delivered to anyone in violation of its trust, or lost, or stolen, abstracted, or destroyed, and fails to make prompt report of such loss, theft, abstraction, or destruction to his superior officer— Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both."

Attorney George Conway, a staunch Trump critic and husband of former White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, suggested the law was violated by the former president.

"First president to be investigated for violating the Espionage Act?" he wrote on Twitter late Thursday evening, in an apparent reference to Trump.

Conway's post included a retweet of a previous one, in which he wrote: "First president to be impeached twice. First president to attempt a coup d'état. First president to have his home searched by the FBI. First president to take the Fifth. It's just so impressive."

Ryan Goodman, who previously worked as special counsel for the Defense Department, also floated the possibility that Trump had violated the law.

"More indicators this is about crimes like #Espionage Act: NYT: 'Two people briefed on the classified documents that investigators believe remained at [MAL] indicated that they were so sensitive in nature, and related to national security, that the Justice Department had to act,'" he wrote, quoting from the Times.

Asha Rangappa, a lawyer and former FBI special agent, shared a lengthy Twitter thread explaining how Trump may have violated the act.

"DOJ [Department of Justice], for its part, has frankly shown a willingness to risk national security, at least temporarily, in order to show some deference and courtesy (and benefit [of] the doubt) to a former POTUS. I think it's fair to say that if you or I tried this, we'd be arrested on Day 1," Rangappa said.

Newsweek reached out to Trump's press office for comment.

Trump has issued multiple public statements through his Truth Social platform denying any wrongdoing. He rejected the reporting from the Post that said the documents at Mar-a-Lago included information about nuclear weapons.

"Nuclear weapons issue is a Hoax, just like Russia, Russia, Russia was a Hoax, two Impeachments were a Hoax, the Mueller investigation was a Hoax, and much more. Same sleazy people involved," he said in a Friday morning post.

The former president has also said that he was cooperating fully with authorities and that a search warrant was not necessary.

"My attorneys and representatives were cooperating fully, and very good relationships had been established. The government could have had whatever they wanted, if we had it," he wrote.

News that Trump had improperly taken documents to Mar-a-Lago when he left the White House first broke in February. The National Archives and Records Administration confirmed that it was searching for 15 boxes of records. Trump did not deny the story at the time, saying it was a mix-up because his staff hastily moved him out of the White House. He also said he was cooperating to return the materials.