WASHINGTON — Attorney General Merrick B. Garland on Thursday called former President Donald J. Trump’s bluff.
Since the FBI issued a search warrant at Mr. Trump’s Florida residence on Monday, Mr. Trump and his supporters have portrayed the search as baseless and politically motivated.
The investigation focuses on whether Mr. Trump erroneously took sensitive materials from the White House and then failed to return all of them — including classified documents — when the National Archives and the Department of Justice demanded him.
But Mr. Trump has chosen to keep secret the warrant and list of what the FBI extracted from his Mar-a-Lago club and estate — documents that most likely indicate what law or laws investigators believe have been violated, what evidence that faith they thought they would find there and what they confiscated.
Mr. Garland and the investigators working on the case had made no public comments after the search, which allowed Mr. Trump and his supporters to make increasingly elaborate allegations of official misconduct and abuse of power.
More coverage of the FBI search into Trump’s home
But on Thursday, Mr. Garland broke his silence.
Speaking from a podium at the Justice Department, the Attorney General said he personally approved the search warrant request. He denounced the “baseless attacks on the professionalism” and integrity of the FBI and prosecutors.
And — most importantly — he announced that the Justice Department had filed a motion to rescind the warrant used in the search, as well as the inventory of what the FBI had taken, so that the government could make them public.
In doing so, the attorney general alluded to the fact that Mr. Trump was free to release the documents himself, but has chosen not to. “On the day of the search, copies of both the FBI warrant and title deed were handed over to the former president’s counsel, who was on the scene during the search,” said Mr. Garland.
A federal magistrate judge — Bruce E. Reinhart, who has also been attacked by Trump supporters — moved quickly and set a 3 p.m. deadline Friday for the department to pass on any objection from Mr. Trump about disclosing the documents. In his brief remarks, Mr. Garland said he had decided to make a public statement because Mr Trump had confirmed the action and because of the “significant public interest in this matter”.
If Mr. Trump agrees, the public will have more information about the basis for the search — information that could refute the former president’s claims that the Justice Department acted for no reason. However, if Mr Trump opposes the disclosure, he runs the risk of looking like he has something to hide.
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Anyway, there is another important caveat. Mr. Garland did not propose to disclose the department’s search warrant application and any associated affidavits from a detective explaining why there were probable reasons to believe that the search would provide evidence of a crime.
Those materials would indicate in clearer detail, not just what detectives think they know — for example, whether they thought Mr. Trump was illegally hoarding government documents, whether some of those files were classified and where they were stored in Mar-a-Lago — but how the researchers knew those things.
In short, the filing would clarify whether the Justice Department is in talks with one or more confidential sources in the Trump camp providing information.
Unsurprisingly, the Justice Department isn’t proposing to disclose that particularly sensitive material, as it would carefully protect its sources. But at the same time, Mr Trump’s supporters are eager to learn.
Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is a close ally to Trump, released a statement Thursday afternoon saying he wanted to know the basis for the search — alluding to “the deep distrust of the FBI and DOJ” among supporters. of the former president.
Mr Graham noted that in the Russia investigation, guard orders against an adviser to Mr Trump were later deemed unwarranted. According to a report from the Inspector General, the FBI has failed to notify the court of evidence that undermines its claim that the adviser was most likely a Russian agent.
“What I’m looking for is the search predicate,” said Mr. Graham. “Was the information provided to the judge sufficient and necessary to authorize a raid on the former president’s home within 90 days of the midterm elections? I insist, insist that the DOJ and FBI lay their hands on the table as to why this course of action was necessary. Until that happens, suspicion will continue to grow.”
By that standard, Mr. Graham and other Trump allies are unlikely to be satisfied with the documents Mr. Garland is proposing to make public. The underlying filing may one day be unsealed and made public, but that usually happens after an indictment, such as when a defendant files a request to suppress evidence gathered in a search by alleging it lacked a sufficient legal basis.
Still, even the documents the Justice Department wants to make public could shed significant light on why investigators conducted the search — documents Trump, for one reason or another, has thus far deemed in his best interest to keep secret.
“Federal law, long-standing department rules and our ethical obligations prevent me from providing further details on the basis of the search at this time,” said Mr. Garland, adding: “This is all I can say for now. More information will be available in the right way and at the right time.”