WASHINGTON — The Department of Justice is moving to unseal the search warrant and itemized receipt of what was taken from former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence earlier this week, Attorney General Merrick Garland said Thursday in his first public comments since the FBI search was conducted.
It is extraordinarily unusual for the Department of Justice to comment on an ongoing investigation, especially one involving such a high-profile person, and Garland did not take questions from reporters. The motion to unseal the warrant was filed as he spoke. A judge must rule before the warrant can be unsealed.
Garland indicated he was driven to act by the misinformation around the search.
“The department filed the motion to make public the warrant and receipt in light of the former president’s public confirmation of the search, the surrounding circumstances and the substantial public interest in this matter,” Garland said.
The FBI did not disclose the daylong search of Trump’s Florida estate. Trump announced it had occurred in a statement, referring to the court-sanctioned search as a “raid,” inflaming the far right, who have accused the FBI and Department of Justice of becoming politicized.
Trump will have the opportunity to contest making the warrant and list of recovered documents public — in its motion, the Department of Justice proposed giving the former president until Aug. 25 to do so. Federal Magistrate Judge Bruce E. Reinhart gave the department until 3 p.m. Eastern time Friday to report back as to whether Trump’s legal team plans to contest unsealing the warrant.
Trump’s legal team has acknowledged having in its possession the warrant and receipt since Monday’s search but has not provided specific detail on the contents of the documents.
The department’s motion states that it is moving to unseal the information primarily because Trump confirmed that the search had occurred and because his lawyers have spoken publicly to reporters about what the FBI sought.
“This matter plainly ‘concerns public officials or public concerns’ ... as it involves a law enforcement action taken at the property of the 45th President of the United States. The public’s clear and powerful interest in understanding what occurred under these circumstances weighs heavily in favor of unsealing,” the motion states.
Garland told reporters that the Department of Justice prefers to speak through legal filings rather than public statements.
For days, Republicans have decried the search as a “witch hunt” and demanded Garland provide more information about why a warrant was necessary to reclaim documents that Trump did not hand over to the National Archives upon leaving office in January 2021.
Far-right agitators and commentators have threatened FBI agents, Department of Justice officials and Reinhart, the judge who signed the warrant, and online forums have surged with calls for violence. On Thursday, a man wearing body armor exchanged gunfire with law enforcement officers and attempted to breach the FBI field office in Cincinnati, though it is not yet clear whether it was in response to Monday’s search.
The National Archives announced in February that it had recovered 15 boxes of material from Mar-a-Lago — including documents that had been damaged and some that were labeled classified or top secret — and was asking the Department of Justice to determine if criminal charges were warranted. Under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, such records belong to the public and must be turned over to the National Archives and Records Administration when a president leaves office. The act gives broad discretion in determining what records are personal and what are presidential records.
The New York Times reported Thursday morning that Trump received a subpoena this spring for classified documents that federal investigators believed he had failed to turn over earlier in the year. Multiple news outlets have reported that Trump’s lawyers met with Justice officials in June to discuss what confidential records the former president still had in his possession.
The New York Times also reported that officials believed that the information being withheld was related to national security and so sensitive that it had to act.
“I personally approved the decision to seek a search warrant in this matter,” Garland said Thursday. “The department does not take such a decision lightly. Where possible, it is standard practice to seek less intrusive means as an alternative to a search and to narrowly scope any search that is undertaken.”
Depending on redactions, the warrant could outline the suspected crimes alleged in the case and what items were removed from Trump’s estate. The department’s motion does not specifically seek to unseal the search warrant application or the affidavit detailing what probable cause it had to believe a crime had occurred, both of which were provided to the judge who approved the warrant, but references two attachments without describing them.
It’s not yet clear what records the FBI sought and obtained, but the itemized receipt should provide some details.
Trump’s lawyers and several prominent Republicans have said — without providing evidence to back up the claim — that they believe the FBI planted evidence in the boxes it removed.
In his brief remarks, Garland said he had to respond to the “unfounded attacks on the professionalism” of his department.
“I will not stand by silently when their integrity is unfairly attacked. The men and women of the FBI and the Justice Department are dedicated, patriotic public servants.”
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who lost her spot in House leadership for criticizing Trump’s reaction to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection, and who helps lead the congressional panel investigating the events, defended the agents in a tweet Thursday.
“I have been ashamed to hear members of my party attacking the integrity of the FBI agents involved with the recent Mar-a-Lago search. These are sickening comments that put the lives of patriotic public servants at risk,” she said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who was among the Republicans demanding more information about what led to the search, was not satisfied with Garland’s announcement.
“What I am looking for is the predicate for the search. Was the information provided to the judge sufficient and necessary to authorize a raid on the former president’s home within ninety days of the midterm election?” Graham said in a tweet. “I am urging, actually insisting, the DOJ and the FBI lay their cards on the table as to why this course of action was necessary. Until that is done the suspicion will continue to mount.”
The Department of Justice often doesn’t pursue criminal cases during election season to avoid the appearance of partisanship. Though Trump has strongly indicated he plans to run for president again in 2024, he is not yet a candidate, nor is he on the ballot in 2022.
Garland has stressed that no one is above the law.
©2022 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.