Some within Trump’s circle believe that releasing the document would give him additional ammunition to attack the integrity of the Justice Department’s inquiry. Yet others fear that such a move could backfire because they do not know exactly what it contains, these people said. Like others, they spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss their private conversations with the former president.
Justice Department opposes release of Mar-a-Lago affidavit
The affidavit, which likely contains witness names and other sensitive details about federal law enforcement’s methods and evidence, has emerged as the latest flash point in the ongoing criminal probe stemming from Trump’s dispute with the National Archives over materials taken from the White House when his term ended last year.
Following the FBI’s Aug. 8 search at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., multiple media outlets, including The Washington Post, asked a federal court there to release the affidavit. In arguing for the document’s disclosure, attorneys for the news organizations have cited the “historic importance of these events.”
The Justice Department this week filed a motion to keep the document under seal. The affidavit, officials argued, pertains to “highly classified information.” Releasing it, they contend, could hamper the ongoing investigation, put the safety of named witnesses at risk and require so many redactions that it would not enhance the public’s understanding of the investigation.
Then there’s Trump, who harbors deep animosity for both institutions. Late Monday, in a post on the social media site he started, Truth Social, the former president said that “in the interest of TRANSPARENCY,” the affidavit should be released without redactions.
A former senior Justice Department official who has closely watched the case unfold cast doubt on there being anything “good” for the former president in the affidavit.
“It’s an advocacy document,” this person said. While “everything needs to be true, there’s no exculpatory information. It’s never a good story for the defendant.”
Magistrate Judge Bruce E. Reinhart has called a hearing for Thursday afternoon. Trump’s legal team has until Thursday morning to file a motion with the court if the former president intends to make a formal appeal for its release. His attorneys had not done so as of Tuesday evening.
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Trump remains at his Bedminster golf club in New Jersey, huddling with a coterie of aides. Much of his legal team is not there, as the former president and his advisers seek to bring on new lawyers who have worked high-profile cases involving the Justice Department and posses experience arguing cases in Florida, people familiar with the matter said.
Trump’s lawyers, these people added, have not received a full briefing on precisely what was taken from Mar-a-Lago, complicating discussions about the affidavit.
Additionally, there is some confusion within Trump’s orbit about how much legal trouble he or others close to him could face, people familiar with the matter said. Many of his close advisers have said they do not know exactly what classified documents were stored in boxes at Mar-a-Lago while others encouraged him last year to return materials taken from the White House, people familiar with the matter said.
And surveillance video from Mar-a-Lago that was captured over 60 days and subpoenaed by the Justice Department shows people going in and out of the storage area where the classified documents were kept, said a person with knowledge of the footage.
A spokesman for the former president did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The intense public and political intrigue surrounding the affidavit has amplified the pressure facing Attorney General Merrick Garland as the federal investigation continues, observers say. There may be an insatiable desire for more information, but the Justice Department “cannot care that much about it,” said Matthew Miller, a former spokesman for the agency.
“The Justice Department is one of the few agencies that says transparency for the sake of transparency doesn’t always make sense — particularly in an ongoing situation,” he said. “They just have to do their work and if they take a hit for not telling the public something, they have to take a hit.”
Other legal experts said the Justice Department’s reticence to publicize the document is in line with how the agency typically conducts investigations. And they noted that Garland — who makes relatively few public appearances — already has said more about this investigation than he does about most.
Last week, Garland made an unusual public statement at the Justice Department, announcing that he personally authorized the decision to seek court permission for a warrant to search Mar-a-Lago. He also called on a judge to release the search warrant and an inventory detailing the 11 sets of classified documents that agents retrieved, but not the affidavit.
Those documents indicated that agents who went to Mar-a-Lago were seeking evidence of potential violations of federal statutes, including a section of the Espionage Act that makes it a crime to possess or share national defense secrets without authorization.
“Merrick Garland has already spent a few more minutes talking about this in public than he normally would,” said Stephen A. Saltzburg, a George Washington University law professor and former deputy assistant attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration. “The tradition in the department is keeping the investigation and sources confidential. The thing that makes this stand out is that this is the first time they have searched a former president’s home like this.”
Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.