WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department is asking a federal court to unseal the warrant the FBI used to search former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, Attorney General Merrick Garland said Thursday, acknowledging the extraordinary public interest in the case of classified records.
The request is striking because such documents traditionally remain sealed while an investigation is pending. But the Justice Department seemed to realize that its silence since the search had created a vacuum for bitter verbal attacks from Trump and his allies, and Garland wanted to provide the FBI’s side in what led to the action.
“The public’s clear and strong interest in understanding what happened under these circumstances speaks strongly in favor of the unsealing,” said a petition for unsealing filed Thursday in Florida federal court.
If the warrant is cleared — the request is now with the judge and Trump can appeal — he could potentially reveal unflattering information about the former president and his handling of sensitive government documents as he prepares for another run for the White House. During his successful 2016 campaign, he frequently referenced an FBI investigation into his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton into whether she mishandled classified information.
It is unclear at this time how much information would be contained in the documents if released, or whether they would include an FBI affidavit that would presumably provide a detailed factual basis for the search. To obtain a search warrant, federal authorities must demonstrate to a judge that there is probable cause to believe that a criminal offense has been committed.
Neither Trump nor the FBI have said anything about what documents the FBI may have seized. But the former president complained again about the search on Thursday.
Trump, who has berated the FBI for years and tried to sow distrust in his decisions among his supporters, said the warrant was served and the search conducted despite his cooperation with the Justice Department.
In a post on his Truth Social platform, Trump said his “lawyers and representatives fully cooperated prior to the search” and that government officials “could have whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, if we had it.”
FBI and Department of Justice guidelines warn against discussing ongoing investigations, both to protect the integrity of the investigation and to avoid unfairly defaming someone who is being investigated but is ultimately not charged. This is particularly true in the case of search warrants, where supporting court documents are routinely kept secret during investigations.
In this case, however, Garland cited the fact that Trump himself had provided the first public confirmation of the FBI search “as his right.” The Justice Department also said in its new filing that disclosing information about it now would not affect the court’s functions.
Even so, in a hastily planned public statement delivered from the Justice Department podium, Garland appeared to acknowledge the unusual nature of the Department’s request, as he declined to answer questions or provide significant details about the FBI’s investigation.
“Much of our work is, of necessity, done in camera. We’re doing this to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans and the integrity of our investigations,” he said. “Federal law, longstanding departmental rules, and our ethical obligations currently prevent me from providing further details on the basis of the search.”
He said he personally authorized the search warrant, a move he said was part of an ongoing Justice Department investigation into the discovery of classified White House records leaked from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home earlier this year recovered in Palm Beach, Florida. The National Archives had asked the department to investigate after it said secret records were found in 15 boxes of records it retrieved from the estate.
The Attorney General condemned the verbal abuse of FBI and Justice Department employees for the search. Some of Trump’s Republican allies have called for the FBI to be defunded.
Earlier Thursday, a gunman wearing a body armor attempted to breach a security checkpoint at an FBI field office in Ohio, then fled and was injured in a shootout in a standoff with law enforcement.
“I will not stand by in silence when their integrity is unfairly attacked,” Garland said of federal law enforcement officers, calling them “dedicated, patriotic officers.”
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