To account for documents that one person briefed on the matter said related to some of the most highly classified programs run by the United States, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland moved on Thursday to make public the legal authorization for the F.B.I.’s search of former President Donald J. Trump’s home in Florida.
After “less intrusive” efforts to recover Trump’s stolen materials from the White House failed, Mr. Garland said he personally approved the search.
Mr. Garland was vague about the situation. A source with knowledge of the investigation said that special access programs (SAP) data was of particular concern. SAP data is classified even higher than top secret and is usually reserved for highly secretive U.S. operations abroad or closely held technologies and capabilities.
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Another person familiar with the Justice Department’s thinking says that government officials are worried that keeping highly classified materials at Mr. Trump’s home could make them susceptible to efforts by foreign adversaries to acquire them.
Mr. Garland said in a brief two-minute statement to reporters at Justice Department headquarters that he decided to speak out after Mr. Trump disclosed the action himself. In addition to the “circumstances” and “substantial public interest in this matter,” the attorney general stated that he was taking the case to court.
In addition to defending the Justice Department’s handling of the case, at least implicitly, from the torrent of criticism directed at it by Mr. Trump and his allies, Mr. Garland used his brief appearance to address the issue of his recusal.
Mr. Garland emphasized the importance of a fair and impartial application of the law to maintain the rule of law. “The Justice Department is acting in that fashion while I am in charge.”
On Monday, just minutes before Mr. Garland took the podium, a senior official in the Justice Department’s national security division filed a motion to unseal the search warrant and an inventory of items seized in the search.
A source familiar with the situation has said that while the inventory given to Mr. Trump’s team after the search is unlikely to reveal details about the specific documents he kept, it does refer to a wide range of sensitive material.
Some of Mr. Trump’s advisers were reportedly considering filing an opposition to the motion to release the warrant and the inventory, a move that could delay or even prevent the release of the material.
Federal magistrate for the Southern District of Florida Bruce Reinhart, who issued the search warrant and is handling the motion to unseal it, issued an order requiring the Justice Department to serve a copy of its motion to unseal it on Mr. Trump’s attorneys. It instructed the department to notify the judge by Friday at 3 p.m. if Mr. Trump objects to the motion.
Mr. Garland’s comments amounted to a challenge to President Trump, who could have released the search warrant and a list of the items seized during the search but has chosen not to. The political complexity — or hypocrisy — of any decision by Mr. Trump to oppose making the search warrant public has been compounded by the fact that many Trump allies and Republicans have called on Mr. Garland to explain his decision.
The Justice Department did not attempt to make public the affidavits that were used to secure the warrant, despite the fact that they would have provided a great deal more detail about Mr. Trump’s behavior and the evidence presented by others.
The timing of Mr. Garland’s public statement was unprecedented, as a wide-ranging series of investigations into the former president gained steam at the same time that Mr. Trump continued to hint that he might soon announce another run for the White House.
This week, federal agents seized the phone of a close ally of President Trump in the House as part of an investigation into Mr. Trump’s efforts to remain in power after his 2020 election loss. On Wednesday, Mr. Trump invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in a civil investigation into his business practices by the New York attorney general.
Mr. Garland’s remarks came on the same day that police shot and killed a man who they said had tried to break into the F.B.I.’s Cincinnati office. Two law enforcement officials said they were looking into whether he had ties to extremist groups, including one that was involved in the attack on the Capitol on January 6.
The search of Mr. Trump’s private club, Mar-a-Lago, on Monday was the most dramatic turn in the various investigations. The focus of the probe is on whether or not he improperly took sensitive materials, including classified documents, from the White House after his term ended and did not return them despite requests from the National Archives and the Justice Department.
According to three sources familiar with the situation, months before the F.B.I. showed up at Mar-a-Lago this summer, Mr. Trump received a subpoena in search of documents that federal investigators believed he had failed to turn over earlier this year, when he returned 15 boxes of material to the archives.
The subpoena’s existence provides more context for the events leading up to the search, and it suggests that the Justice Department exhausted all other means of tracking down the missing information before taking the politically risky action of sending F.B.I. agents to Mar-a-Lago without prior notice.
Mr. Garland did not respond to a subpoena during his Thursday appearance, but he did say, “where possible, it is standard practice to seek less intrusive means,” implying that other options were explored before resorting to a search.
According to two people who were briefed on the classified documents that investigators believe were still at Mar-a-Lago, the Justice Department was compelled to take action because of the documents’ sensitivity and relevance to national security.
John Solomon, a conservative journalist and one of Trump’s representatives to the National Archives, was the first to report on the subpoena.
Trump’s supporters are pointing to the existence of the subpoena to argue that the search was warrantless because the previous administration was cooperative in locating and returning the requested documents.
Mrs. Christina Bobb, Mr. Trump’s attorney, did not return calls. The details of the subpoena and the potential documents produced by the former president remain murky.
One of the people said the subpoena was a factor in the early June visit to Mar-a-Lago by Jay Bratt, the top counterintelligence official at the Justice Department, and a small group of other federal officials.
The officials spoke with Evan Corcoran, Mr. Trump’s attorney. Mr. Trump made an appearance, as he enjoys hosting and has a history of trying to win over officials investigating his business practices. A storage area in the basement was searched by the officials to see if any of the former president’s belongings from the White House were still there.
One of the people said that a few days after the visit, Mr. Bratt emailed Mr. Corcoran and instructed him to use a more robust padlock to protect the remaining documents stored in the secure area. The Wall Street Journal was the first to publish details of the email.
The club’s surveillance footage was then subpoenaed, which, according to an informed source, could have shown who was using the storage area and when. According to the source, the club provided footage from the locations where they thought the documents were kept.
At the same time, according to three people with knowledge of the situation, investigators were in touch with a number of Mr. Trump’s aides who still worked for him and who had some insight into how he stored and moved documents around the White House.
According to three sources familiar with the investigation, investigators have reached out to Molly Michael, Mr. Trump’s assistant in the outer Oval Office who later went to work for him at Mar-a-Lago.
A source familiar with the investigation reports that investigators have also reached out to Derek Lyons, the former White House staff secretary whose last day of employment was December 18, 2020 and who no longer works for Mr. Trump, with questions about the handling process.
According to three people with knowledge of the investigation, federal officials concluded that Mr. Trump had not turned over all the material that left the White House with him at the end of his term.
With a search warrant in hand, roughly two dozen F.B.I. agents showed up at Mar-a-Lago less than two months after Mr. Bratt and the other officials visited Mr. Trump’s home, but they were not wearing the blue wind breakers emblazoned with the agency’s logo.
The club was deserted; Mr. Trump was out of town; the F.B.I. startled a maintenance crew working on a massive fountain, a housekeeper doing some last-minute dusting, and a few Secret Service agents.
The agents could look into any part of the club they wanted to in order to find any classified materials. The club’s basement was searched along with Mr. Trump’s office and a portion of his personal residence.
One eyewitness said that after several hours of searching, the agents left with several boxes that were not completely full and that in some cases only contained sealed envelopes of material that they took.
Two pages of a manifest listing the stolen items were allegedly left behind by the F.B.I. If the manifest is released to the public, it will likely have significant blackouts to protect sensitive information.
Allies of Mr. Trump have cautioned senior Republicans against being too critical of the Justice Department and the F.B.I. over the matter, as further damaging information related to the search may be made public.
According to people briefed on the contents, Mr. Trump took with him boxes containing a variety of documents, as well as other items like a raincoat and golf balls, when he left the White House. After Mr. Trump left office, the National Archives spent months trying to retrieve the material, holding extensive discussions with his representatives to acquire what should have properly been stored by the archives under the Presidential Records Act.
Archivists returned 15 boxes this year and referred the matter to the Justice Department after discovering several pages of secret information. Later, officials began to suspect that more secret documents were still stored at Mar-a-Lago.
Mr. Garland, a former mid-level prosecutor, appeared on Thursday to refute allegations made by Mr. Trump and his supporters that FBI agents or Justice Department lawyers were politically motivated or acted inappropriately when requesting or carrying out the search warrant.
Mr. Garland stated, “I will not remain silent when their integrity is unfairly attacked.”
Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Christopher A. Wray said earlier that day in an internal email that he would modify the FBI’s “security posture” as necessary. In addition, he defended the actions of the agents who investigated Trump.
‘We don’t cut corners,’ he wrote. We are completely impartial.
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