WASHINGTON (AFP): US Attorney General Merrick Garland said Thursday he had “personally approved” the dramatic raid on Donald Trump’s Florida estate and, in a highly unusual move, was requesting the warrant justifying the search be made public.
The country’s top prosecutor did not reveal the reason for the unprecedented search of the home of a former US president, and condemned “unfounded attacks” on the FBI and the Justice Department that followed it.
“I personally approved the decision to seek a search warrant,” Garland told reporters in his first public statement since Monday’s raid. “The department does not take such a decision lightly.”
While noting that “ethical obligations” prevented him detailing the basis of the raid, Garland said he had asked a Florida judge to unseal the warrant because Trump had publicly confirmed the search and there is “substantial public interest in this matter.”
Trump, who has a copy of the search warrant but has — so far — declined to reveal its contents, has until 3:00 pm (1900 GMT) on Friday to contest the request that it be unsealed.
Some analysts suggested Garland was effectively daring him to block the motion, given that Trump has insisted the raid was baseless and politically motivated.
Andrew Weissmann, a former Justice Department official, said Garland had “called Trump’s bluff” by putting the onus on the former president to object or consent to release of the document.
The Justice Department motion to unseal the warrant noted — and did not dispute — statements by Trump’s representatives that the FBI was seeking presidential records and potential classified material.
According to US media, the search related to potential mishandling of classified documents taken to Mar-a-Lago after Trump left the White House in January 2021.
The Washington Post on Thursday cited anonymous sources close to the investigation as saying that classified documents relating to nuclear weapons were among the papers sought by the FBI agents during the raid.
The newspaper did not clarify if the nuclear weapons involved belonged to the United States or to another country.
The FBI raid on Trump’s palatial Mar-a-Lago residence sparked a political firestorm in an already bitterly divided country, and comes as he is weighing another White House run in 2024.
In a statement on his Truth Social platform on Thursday, Trump said his attorneys had been “cooperating fully” and “the government could have had whatever they wanted, if we had it.”
“And then, out of nowhere and with no warning, Mar-a-Lago was raided at 6:30 in the morning,” he said, adding that agents even “went through the First Lady’s closets and rummaged through her clothing and personal items.”
Leading Republicans have rallied around Trump, and some members of his party have harshly denounced the Justice Department and FBI, accusing them of partisanship in targeting the former president.
Garland criticised what he called “unfounded attacks on the professionalism of the FBI and Justice Department agents and prosecutors.”
An armed man was shot dead by police on Thursday after trying to break into an FBI office in Cincinnati, Ohio, police said.
‘Without fear or favour’
The Justice Department typically does not confirm or deny whether it is investigating someone, and Garland — a former prosecutor and judge who has a reputation as a stickler for protocol — took pains to emphasise the law was being applied fairly.
“Faithful adherence to the rule of law is the bedrock principle of the Justice Department and of our democracy,” he said. “The rule of law means applying the law evenly without fear or favor.”
Since leaving office, Trump has remained the country’s most divisive figure and a force in the Republican party, continuing to sow falsehoods that he actually won the 2020 vote.
On Wednesday, the 76-year-old former president was questioned for four hours by Letitia James, the New York state attorney general who is investigating the business practices of the Trump Organisation.
Trump is also facing legal scrutiny for his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election and over the January 6 attack on the US Capitol by his supporters.
Trump was impeached for a historic second time by the House after the Capitol riot — he was charged with inciting an insurrection — but was acquitted by the Senate.
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