WASHINGTON — Attorney General Merrick Garland said Thursday that he “personally approved the decision to seek a search warrant” for former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort and that the Justice Department filed a motion earlier in the day to make the warrant public.
Speaking about his decision at a brief news conference, Garland said the department “does not take such actions lightly” and first pursues “less intrusive” means to retrieve material. Garland noted that it was Trump’s “right” to reveal Monday’s FBI search of his property and that all Americans are entitled to a presumption of innocence.
Garland added that the Justice Department has asked to make public the property receipt detailing what agents found inside the Trump property.
Trump received a federal grand jury subpoena this spring for sensitive documents the government believed he retained after his departure from the White House, a source familiar with the matter confirmed.
Garland’s nod to “less intrusive” avenues for recovery of documents appeared to be a reference to the subpoena and suggested that Trump had not turned over all of the material sought by the Justice Department.
Trump defended himself in a statement posted to his Truth Social media platform after Garland’s remarks, claiming that his lawyers were “cooperating fully” and had developed “very good relationships” with Justice Department officials.
“The government could have had whatever they wanted, if we had it,” he wrote. “Out of nowhere, and with no warning, Mar-a-Lago was raided” by “VERY large numbers of agents, and even ‘safecrackers.’ They got way ahead of themselves. Crazy!”
Conservative journalist John Solomon first reported Thursday afternoon that Trump was sent the subpoena months before the FBI searched his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida on Monday.
The source familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the subpoena was related to documents that Trump’s legal team discussed with Justice Department officials at a previously reported meeting on June 3.
The federal officials who went to Mar-a-Lago for the June meeting were “coming down to retrieve the documents that were being requested” in the subpoena, the source familiar with the matter said, adding that the meeting was arranged with the Trump team’s understanding that turning over relevant documents that day would fulfill the subpoena.
Citing “two sources briefed on the classified documents” sought in the subpoena, The New York Times reported Thursday that federal officials were prompted to search Mar-a-Lago because uncollected material was particularly sensitive to national security.
The source familiar with the matter told NBC News that Trump’s lawyers last heard from the Justice Department before the FBI search shortly after the June meeting, when federal officials asked for additional security in the storage facility where documents were held. Trump’s team added a second lock to the basement storage area, the source said.
During Thursday’s remarks, Garland also defended the Justice Department against “unfounded” attacks made by Trump and his allies.
“I will not stand by silently when their integrity is unfairly attacked,” he said. “Every day they protect the American people from violent crime, terrorism and other threats to their safety while safeguarding our civil rights.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray, who was appointed by Trump, echoed those sentiments in a statement Thursday night.
“Unfounded attacks on the integrity of the FBI erode respect for the rule of law and are a grave disservice to the men and women who sacrifice so much to protect others. Violence and threats against law enforcement, including the FBI, are dangerous and should be deeply concerning to all Americans,” he said.
“Every day I see the men and women of the FBI doing their jobs professionally and with rigor, objectivity, and a fierce commitment to our mission of protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution. I am proud to serve alongside them,” Wray added.
Earlier this week, Trump attacked the FBI in a Truth Social post, with similar remarks from his allies.
“Everyone was asked to leave the premises, they wanted to be alone, without any witnesses to see what they were doing, taking or, hopefully not, ‘planting,’” he wrote. “Why did they STRONGLY insist on having nobody watching them, everybody out?”
Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, a friend of the former president, said that while the two men had not discussed the investigation, “my guess is he’s pretty shocked.” Ruddy echoed Trump’s attacks on the FBI, calling the search a “publicity stunt” and depicting the Justice Department as politicized.
“Unfounded attacks on the integrity of the FBI erode respect for the rule of law and are a grave disservice to the men and women who sacrifice so much to protect others. Violence and threats against law enforcement, including the FBI, are dangerous and should be deeply concerning to all Americans. Every day I see the men and women of the FBI doing their jobs professionally and with rigor, objectivity, and a fierce commitment to our mission of protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution. I am proud to serve alongside them.”
Garland’s appearance Thursday followed an outpouring of criticism from Justice Department officials and alumni who faulted him both for his reticence amid the unprecedented search of an ex-president’s home and for failing to defend federal agents from unfounded claims that they had planted evidence.
A former Justice Department official told NBC News: “In a normal investigation, secrecy is important and justified. But when you’re talking about sending dozens of FBI agents into the bedroom of the former president of the United States to go through his drawers, you need to explain what’s going on.”
If not, this person added, “everyone will assume the worst.”
“This is a completely unprecedented move by U.S. law enforcement, and I’m frankly astonished that no one has bothered to explain or justify it in any way.”
The White House was not given advance notice of Garland’s remarks, a senior White House official said.
Garland on Thursday put the onus on Trump to reveal more about the search, deflecting criticism that the Justice Department has been overly secretive. Under the motion filed by prosecutors, Trump now has two choices: He can allow the warrant to be made public, or he can keep it secret and risk appearing as if he has something to hide.
“I thought it was both completely appropriate and absolutely brilliant to ask the president’s lawyers to weigh in on a decision to unseal,” said Chuck Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney and FBI official who has worked in Democratic and Republican administrations. “If there’s no there there, you would expect the president agrees.”
Representatives and attorneys for Trump did not immediately respond to requests for comment about whether he planned to fight Garland’s motion to unseal the search warrant.
The Justice Department’s motion does not seek to make public the affidavit of probable cause, which includes the FBI’s justification for searching Mar-a-Lago.
According to the court filing, a federal judge signed off on the search warrant last Friday. The filing notes that Trump and his lawyers have copies of both the warrant and a “redacted Property Receipt listing items seized pursuant to the search” — and that they can object to the public release of those documents.
“Given the intense public interest presented by a search of a residence of a former President, the government believes these factors favor unsealing the search warrant” and related materials, the filing says. “That said, the former President should have an opportunity to respond to this Motion and lodge objections, including with regards to any ‘legitimate privacy interests’ or the potential for other ‘injury’ if these materials are made public.”
The next step is for Justice Department officials to meet with Trump’s lawyers and determine whether he intends to fight disclosure of the warrant and the property receipt, according to an order Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart issued Thursday. The Justice Department must file a notice by 3 p.m. ET Friday to inform the judge of the Trump team’s intentions.
An irony of the investigation is that it centers on paper records. As president, Trump had an aversion to reading briefing material that staff members would hand him, former administration officials said. David Shulkin, the former veterans affairs secretary, said that when he would meet with Trump in the Oval Office or an adjacent private dining room where the ex-president often worked with the TV tuned to Fox News, he was struck by the absence of paperwork.
“President Trump never wanted any paper from us,” Shulkin said. “I would go into his office initially and say, ‘Mr. President, I have a briefing for you.’ And he would literally, with his hands, push it back and say, ‘I don’t want that.’ He didn’t want to read any of that stuff. When you go into the Oval Office, my recollection of President Trump was there wasn’t a paper anywhere. His desk was a Diet Coke and nothing else.”
John Kelly, a former Trump White House chief of staff, said he would instruct Cabinet secretaries to brief Trump in person. “I would say this to members of the Cabinet,” Kelly told NBC News. “Rather than give him something to read, tell him.”
Kelly, the longest-serving chief of staff of Trump’s presidency, said that when he took the job in the summer 2017 he was told that Trump had been briefed on the Presidential Records Act and its requirement that documents be preserved.
He also said he would speak to Trump about the importance of retaining records. The message did not sink in, Kelly said, and aides would on occasion retrieve crumpled or torn pieces of paper from a wastebasket and try to piece them back together so they could eventually be turned over to archivists.
Still, Trump plainly valued some of the paper records that got to his desk. He would open a drawer of the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office and show guests the letter he got from former President Barack Obama when he left office in January 2017, a former White House official said. Or he would show visitors an executive order or a letter he had gotten from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
At his home in Mar-a-Lago, he would greet guests at dinnertime and have an aide retrieve an executive order to show them, the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss Trump’s practices.