WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal judge was set to decide as early as Friday whether to grant the Justice Department’s request to unseal the warrant authorizing the FBI to search former President Donald Trump’s estate in Florida. Attorney General Merrick Garland said there was “substantial public interest in this case,” and Trump supported the “immediate” release of the warrant.
The decision whether or not to unseal the records rested with US Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart, the same judge who signed the search warrant. The Justice Department told the judge Friday afternoon that Trump’s lawyers did not object to the proposal to make it public.
In posts on his Truth Social platform, Trump wrote, “Not only will I not oppose the release of documents…I go one step further by ENCOURAGING the immediate release of these documents.
Trump himself received at least some of the records the government sought to unseal, but he and his attorneys have so far refused to release them.
In a statement on Friday, Trump claimed that the documents seized by agents from his Florida club were “all declassified”, and argued that he would have turned over the documents to the Justice Department if asked.
While sitting presidents have the authority to declassify information, that authority expires as soon as they leave office and it was unclear whether documents seized by federal agents under the warrant had already been declassified. Trump also kept the documents despite multiple requests from agencies, including the National Archives, to turn over presidential records in accordance with federal law.
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The Justice Department’s request is striking because these documents traditionally remain sealed pending an ongoing investigation. But the department appeared to recognize that its silence since the search had created a vacuum for bitter verbal attacks from Trump and his allies, and that the public was entitled to side with the FBI on what prompted Monday’s action at the home. of the former president.
“The clear and powerful public interest in understanding what transpired in these circumstances weighs heavily in favor of unsealing,” said a motion filed Thursday in federal court in Florida.
If the warrant is released, it could leak unflattering information about Trump and the FBI’s scrutiny of his handling of sensitive government documents as he prepares for another run at the White House. During his successful 2016 campaign, he frequently pointed to an FBI investigation into his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, to find out whether she mishandled classified information.
It is unclear at this stage how much information would be included in the documents, whether they were made public, or whether they would include an FBI affidavit that would presumably establish a detailed factual basis for the search. The department specifically requested the unsealing of the warrant along with a property receipt listing the items seized, along with two unspecified attachments.
Several news outlets have separately asked Reinhart to release all documents relating to the search given the high level of public interest.
To obtain a search warrant, federal authorities must prove to a judge that there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed. Garland said he personally approved the warrant, a decision he said the department did not take lightly given that common practice is to select less intrusive tactics whenever possible. than a house search.
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In this case, according to a person familiar with the matter, there was substantial engagement with Trump and his representatives prior to the search warrant, including a subpoena and visit to Mar-a-Lago a few months ago by FBI and Justice Department officials to assess how the documents were stored. The person was not authorized to discuss the case by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Neither Trump nor the FBI said anything about what documents the FBI might have recovered, or what specifically the agents were looking for.
FBI and Justice Department policy cautions against discussing ongoing investigations, both to protect the integrity of the investigations and to avoid unfairly slandering a person who is examined but ultimately not charged. . This is especially true in the case of search warrants, where supporting court documents are routinely kept secret as the investigation unfolds.
In this case, however, Garland cited the fact that Trump himself had provided the first public confirmation of the FBI’s search, “as is his right.” The Justice Department, in its new filing, also said releasing information about it now would not harm the court’s functions.
The Justice Department under Garland has been wary of public statements about politically charged investigations, or confirming the extent to which it might investigate Trump as part of a broader probe into the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. and efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
The department has tried to avoid being seen as injecting itself into presidential politics, as happened in 2016 when then-FBI Director James Comey made an unusual public statement announcing that the FBI would not recommend criminal charges against Clinton over his handling of the emails – and when he spoke again just over a week before the election to inform Congress that the investigation was indeed being reopened due discovering new emails.
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Mar-a-Lago’s search warrant served on Monday was part of an ongoing Justice Department investigation into the discovery of classified White House documents recovered from Trump’s home in Palm Beach, Florida, earlier this year. The National Archives had asked the department to investigate after it said 15 boxes of documents recovered from the estate included classified documents. Several federal laws govern the handling of classified information.
The attorney general also condemned the verbal attacks on FBI and Justice Department personnel during the search. Some Republican allies of Trump have called for the FBI’s funding to be cut. A large number of Trump supporters have called for the warrant to be released in the hope that it will show that Trump was unfairly targeted.
“I will not remain silent when their integrity is unjustly attacked,” Garland said of the federal law enforcement officers, calling them “dedicated and patriotic public servants.”
Earlier Thursday, a gunman wearing a body armor attempted to enter a security screening area at an FBI field office in Ohio, then fled and was later killed after a confrontation with the law enforcement. A law enforcement official briefed on the case identified the man as Ricky Shiffer and said he would have been in Washington in the days leading up to the attack on the Capitol and could have be there on the day of the attack.
Associated Press writers Zeke Miller, Lindsay Whitehurst and Meg Kinnard contributed to this report.