Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
August 11, 2022
Since Monday’s search of former president Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property by the FBI, Trump, Trump supporters, and right-wing media have all been accusing the government of executing a political vendetta and speculating that FBI agents might have planted evidence on the property.
This afternoon, Attorney General Merrick Garland gave a brief press conference in which he announced that the unjustified attacks on the Department of Justice (DOJ) have led it to file a motion to unseal the search warrant the FBI used and a redacted version of the receipt for the things removed from the premises. He also confirmed that copies of the warrant and the property receipt were left with Trump, as regulations require. Had Trump wanted to release them, he could have…and he still can, at any time.
Contrary to right-wing reports, Trump’s lawyer was at Mar-a-Lago during the search, which a federal court authorized after finding probable cause. Garland said that he personally approved the decision to seek a search warrant, and he also pointed out that the Department of Justice did not publicize the search; the former president did. Because of the public interest in the matter—and to clear up confusion over it—the department is asking a judge to unseal the documents.
Garland also defended FBI agents against attacks on them, saying, “The men and women of the FBI and the Justice Department are dedicated, patriotic public servants. Every day they protect the American people from violent crime, terrorism, and other threats to their safety while safeguarding our civil rights. They do so at great personal sacrifice and risk to themselves.”
Garland explained the principle at stake. “Faithful adherence to the rule of law is the bedrock principle of the Justice Department and of our democracy. Upholding the rule of law means applying the law evenly, without fear or favor. Under my watch that is precisely what the Justice Department is doing. All Americans are entitled to the evenhanded application of the law, to due process of the law, and to the presumption of innocence.”
He also reminded people that “the Department of Justice will speak through its court filings and its work.”
The DOJ motion to unseal the search warrant tells us a bit more. It was signed by U.S. Attorney Juan Gonzalez and by Jay Bratt, the chief of the department’s counterintelligence section. The motion also throws the ball into Trump’s court, saying “the former President should have an opportunity to respond to this Motion and lodge objections….” This boxes Trump in. He and his supporters have been demanding the documents be released, although the DOJ cannot release them and Trump can. This motion means that the DOJ has made a strong case to get permission to release them…unless Trump objects. Essentially, the DOJ just called his bluff.
At the New York Times, Katie Benner reported that already “Trump allies are discussing the possibility of challenging the Justice Department’s motion to unseal the Mar-a-Lago search warrant. They have contacted outside lawyers about helping them.”
This should play out quickly: a judge this afternoon told the DOJ to discuss with Trump’s lawyer whether Trump objects to unsealing the documents and to let the judge know by 3:00 tomorrow afternoon. Tonight, Trump said he would not oppose the document’s release, but he didn’t release them himself, so we’ll see what tomorrow brings.
Another right-wing talking point about the search fell apart today as well. Fox News Channel personalities have argued that the Justice Department should simply have issued a subpoena for the material. “Get a subpoena, he will give it back,” Jesse Watters said. “It’s not like Trump won’t cooperate.” But in fact it turns out the DOJ did deliver a subpoena two months ago, and the former president did not comply.
For all the loud protests of Trump supporters over the search, other Republicans—even ones who were previously Team Trump—seem to be backing away. Today, Fox News Channel contributor and former White House press secretary for President George W. Bush Ari Fleischer tweeted: “One thing I can’t wrap my arms around: If Trump had classified documents, why didn’t he give them back? Maybe he thought they were declassified. Maybe he thought it was government overreach. But if, for whatever reason, you have a classified document at home, you give it back.”
For his part, Trump tried to suggest his own retention of documents was not nearly as bad as that of former president Barack Obama, who, Trump alleged, took “33 Million pages of documents…to Chicago.” He is referring to the materials for the Obama presidential library, which have been moved from the National Archives and Records Administration with its permission and cooperation.
Tonight, Devlin Barrett, Josh Dawsey, Perry Stein, and Shane Harris at the Washington Post broke the story that the FBI agents at Mar-a-Lago were looking for documents relating to nuclear weapons, underscoring that the search was imperative. We don’t know any more than that, and heaven knows that’s bad enough.
But what springs to mind for me is the plan pushed by Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and fundraiser and campaign advisor Tom Barrack, to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. In 2019, whistleblowers from the National Security Council worried that their efforts might have broken the law and that the effort to make the transfer was ongoing. The plan was to enable Saudi leaders to build nuclear power plants, a plan that would have yielded billions of dollars to the investors but would have allowed Saudi Arabia to build nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, Zachary Cohen, Jamie Gangel, Sara Murray, and Pamela Brown of CNN report that the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol has interviewed the former secretary of transportation in the Trump administration, Elaine Chao, and is in discussions with former education secretary Betsy DeVos and former national security advisor Robert O’Brien. Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo met with the committee on Tuesday. At least nine Cabinet-level officials either have talked to the committee or are negotiating the terms of interviews. One of the topics has been the attempt to remove Trump through the 25th Amendment after the events of January 6.
The lies about the FBI and the January 6th attack on the Capitol came together today and took a life. Ricky Walter Shiffer, who appears to have been at the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, shot into the FBI field office in Cincinnati with a nail gun this morning while brandishing an AR-15-style weapon. After the attack, he took refuge in a cornfield, where law enforcement officers killed him this afternoon.