United States Attorney General Merrick B Garland has shared publicly the legal authorisation for a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) raid on former President Donald J Trump’s house in Florida in the Joe Biden government’s bid to account for documents that, a source says, relate to some of the highest classified state programmes of the country. Garland said, without elaboration, that he had personally approved the search after the failure of "less intrusive" attempts to retrieve material taken from the White House by Trump.
The source said investigators had been concerned about some material described by the US government as "special access programs". This is a description typically reserved for extremely sensitive operations carried out by the US administration abroad or for closely held technologies and capabilities.
The Biden administration believes, reports The New York Times, it is risky to let these papers remain in Trump’s possession, as foreign adversaries may try to acquire them, said a source in the US Justice Department.
Why raid Trump's house
Late last night, Trump said he would not come in the way of the motion to release the warrant and the inventory. He wrote on his social media site Truth Social that he was "encouraging" their release. "Release the documents now!" he said.
In an edited, 2-min statement to reporters at the Justice Department’s headquarters, Garland said he had decided to break his silence and make a public statement because Trump had disclosed the action himself. The attorney general cited the "surrounding circumstances" of the case and the "substantial public interest in this matter."
Garland used the brief appearance to also defend indirectly the Justice Department’s handling of the case against the bevvy of criticism Trump and his allies directed at it. "Upholding the rule of law means applying the law evenly, without fear or favour," Garland said. "Under my watch that is precisely what the Justice Department is doing."
Minutes before Garland took the podium, a top official in the Justice Department’s national security division had filed a motion to disclose the search warrant and an inventory of items retrieved in the search on 8 August.
While the inventory provided to Trump’s team after the search is unlikely to divulge details about the specific documents he kept in his possession, it refers to several sensitive materials, according to yet another source.
The federal magistrate in Florida who gave a go-ahead to the search warrant and is handling the motion to unseal it, Judge Bruce Reinhart had issued an order requiring the Justice Department to serve a copy of its motion to Trump’s lawyers. It said the department would have to tell the judge by 3 PM today (12 August) whether Trump opposed the motion.
Garland’s statement amounts to throwing a challenge at Trump who has been free to release the search warrant and the list of items taken during the search but has refused to do so. Republicans and many Trump allies have called on Garland to explain his decision, saying any decision by Trump to oppose making the search warrant public would be hypocritical and turn the situation trickier.
The Justice Department did not seek to release the affidavits, which contain much more information about the behaviour of Trump and evidence presented by others, that were used to obtain the warrant.
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The US attorney general's public statement came at an extraordinary moment, as a sprawling set of investigations into the former president on multiple fronts gained momentum even as Trump continued to signal that he might soon announce another run for the White House.
Trump invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination on 10 August in a civil investigation into his business practices by the New York attorney-general. Meanwhile, a close ally in the house had his phone seized by federal agents this week in a part of the probe into Trump’s efforts to remain in power despite his election loss in 2020.
Garland also spoke on the same day that law enforcement officers shot and killed a man who they said tried to break into the FBI’s Cincinnati office on 11 August. The sleuths wanted to know whether he had ties to extremist groups, including one that participated in the 6 January attack on the Capitol, according to two law enforcement officials.
The 8 August search at Trump’s house at Mar-a-Lago, which suffices as his private club, was the most explosive development yet in the various inquiries. The probe centres around the question of whether he improperly took sensitive materials with him from the White House when his term ended and then failed to return all of them, including classified documents, when the National Archives and the Justice Department demanded that he do so.
Months before the FBI had arrived at Mar-a-Lago, Trump had received a subpoena this spring in search of documents that federal investigators believed he had failed to turn over earlier in the year when he returned 15 boxes of material to the archives, three other sources said.
What makes the subpoena so crucial
The existence of the subpoena would reveal the sequence of events that led to the search and suggest that the Justice Department tried methods short of a search warrant to account for the material before taking the politically explosive step of sending FBI agents unannounced to Mar-a-Lago.
Agents carted about a dozen boxes from Trump’s Marg-a-Lago house
Garland did not address a subpoena during his appearance yesterday but said that "where possible, it is standard practice to seek less intrusive means," indicating that other measures were tried before a search took place.
Two officials privy to the classified documents that investigators believed remained at Mar-a-Lago indicated that they were so sensitive — and related to national security — that the Justice Department had to act.
John Solomon, a conservative journalist who has also been designated by Trump as one of his representatives to the National Archives, was the first to disclose the subpoena.
Allies of Trump are using the existence of the subpoena to argue that the former president and his team were cooperating with the department in identifying and returning the documents in question and that the search was unjustified.
Christina Bobb, a lawyer for Trump, did not respond to messages. It is not clear what precise materials the subpoena sought or what documents the former president might have provided in response.
The subpoena factored into a visit that Jay Bratt, the Justice Department’s top counterintelligence official, made with a small group of other federal officials to Mar-a-Lago in early June, one of the people said.
The officials met with Trump’s lawyer, Evan Corcoran. Trump, who likes to play host and has a long history of trying to charm officials inquiring about his practices, emerged too. During the visit, the officials examined a basement storage area where the former president had stowed material that had come with him from the White House.
A few days after the visit, Bratt emailed Corcoran and told him to further secure the remaining documents, which were kept in the storage area with a stronger padlock, another source said. Then, they subpoenaed surveillance footage from the club, which could have given officials a glimpse of who was going in and out of the storage area, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. They received footage specifically from areas of the club where they believed the documents might have been stored, yet another source said.
During the same period, the detectives were in contact with several aides of Trump who had some knowledge of how he stored and moved documents around the White House and who still worked for him, three other sources said.
Among those whom investigators reached was Molly Michael, Trump’s assistant in the outer Oval Office who also went to work for him at Mar-a-Lago, three sources said.
Investigators have reached Derek Lyons, the former White House staff secretary, as well, whose last day was 18 December 2020. He no longer works for Trump, with questions about the process for handling documents, according to yet another source.
Federal officials came to believe that Trump had not relinquished all the material that left the White House with him at the end of his term, according to three people familiar with the investigation.
Read the rest of the report in The New York Times