The Department of Justice is moving to unseal the search warrant and itemized receipt of what was taken from former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence earlier this week, Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland said Thursday in his first public comments since the FBI search was conducted.
It is extraordinarily unusual for the Justice Department 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. The warrant can't be unsealed without a judge's approval.
Garland indicated he was driven to act due to misinformation that was circulating about 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 that referred to the court-sanctioned search as a "raid," inflaming many on the far right, who have accused the FBI and Justice Department of becoming politicized.
Trump will have an opportunity to contest making the warrant and list of recovered documents public. In its motion, the Justice Department 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 on whether Trump’s legal team plans to contest unsealing the warrant.
Trump's legal team has acknowledged having the warrant and receipt in its possession since Monday’s search, but has not provided specific details on the contents of the documents.
Late Thursday, Trump said on his Truth Social network that he was calling for the documents to be unsealed, again reiterating his claim that he was being targeted by partisans.
“Not only will I not oppose the release of documents related to the unAmerican, unwarranted, and unnecessary raid and break-in of my home in Palm Beach, Florida, Mar-a-Lago, I am going a step further by ENCOURAGING the immediate release of those documents, even though they have been drawn up by radical left Democrats and possible future political opponents, who have a strong and powerful vested interest in attacking me, much as they have done for the last 6 years,” Trump said.
The Justice Department’s motion states that it is moving to unseal the information primarily because Trump has confirmed that the search 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 motion says. "The public’s clear and powerful interest in understanding what occurred under these circumstances weighs heavily in favor of unsealing."
Garland told reporters that the Justice Department prefers to speak through legal filings rather than public statements.
For days, Republicans have decried the search as a "witch hunt" and demanded that 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, Justice Department officials and Reinhart, the judge who signed the warrant — and online forums have surged with calls for violence.
On Thursday, an armed man wearing body armor was killed by law enforcement officers after attempting to breach the FBI field office in Cincinnati, though it is not yet clear whether the man was acting 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 damaged documents and some labeled classified or top secret — and that it was asking the Justice Department to determine whether 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 the president broad discretion in determining what records are personal and what are presidential records.
The New York Times reported Thursday morning that Trump had 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 Department officials in June to discuss what confidential records the former president still had in his possession.
On Thursday night, the Washington Post reported that highly sensitive records, including classified documents related to nuclear weapons, were among the materials sought by the Justice Department.
"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 and receipt could outline suspected crimes 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 the motion does reference 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," he said. "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 GOP leadership for criticizing Trump's reaction to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection, and who is helping 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 Justice Department 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 this November.
Garland has emphasized that no one is above the law.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.