(CNN)A report that FBI agents searched for classified documents related to nuclear weapons at Donald Trump’s Florida resort could explain the urgency of the unprecedented operation at the home of an ex-President and takes his showdown with the Justice Department to a grave new level.
The account in The Washington Post could also undercut Republican lawmakers, who didn’t wait for details of the case before criticizing a search they claimed was more typical of a tyrannical state. The latest development also further ups the stakes of an escalating legal battle after Attorney General Merrick Garland on Thursday called the former commander-in-chief’s bluff and, in an unusual move, asked a court to unseal the search warrant and inventory of property taken from Trump’s home.
The details in the Post report came on yet another extraordinary day that reprised the chaos and recriminations of Trump’s presidency, and carved acrimonious new political divides ahead of the former President’s likely run for the White House.
The Post cited people familiar with the investigation as saying that federal agents were looking for classified documents related to nuclear weapons, among other items, at Trump’s resort. The people did not describe the documents in detail nor whether they related to nuclear arms belonging to the US or another nation. CNN has not independently confirmed the report.
But if it turns out that Trump did take such material from the White House, it would raise the question of why a former president would need such closely guarded secrets after leaving office. The possibility that such material would be held at an unsecured facility, where guests come and go and where it would be potentially vulnerable to penetration by a foreign intelligence service, would alarm government officials.
In the intensifying legal battle over the search, Trump has until 3 p.m. ET on Friday to officially signal whether he will contest Garland’s move.
In a statement on his Truth Social network late Thursday, the former President said he would not oppose the release of documents related to the “unAmerican, unwarranted and unnecessary raid and break-in” of his home. He did not say exactly which documents he would be ready to see released. And the FBI search was not a break-in; it was legally authorized by a warrant approved by a judge who would have had to have found probable cause that a crime had been committed.
Garland’s gambit was a neat one.
Search warrants are generally kept under seal to protect the reputation of the person they apply to. But Trump himself broke news of the search, thereby shattering his own expectations of privacy, in order to orchestrate a political firestorm to discredit the investigation. And if Trump fought to keep the document sealed, he would look even more like he has something to hide.
“This is a pro move,” Phil Mudd, a former FBI and CIA official, said of Garland’s actions on “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.”
“This is not the movement of a pawn. This is a movement of something between a rook and a queen.”
If Trump decided to contest the unsealing of the warrant — a step that could neutralize GOP claims that the ex-President is a target of political victimization — his lawyers would have to explain why in court. The judge in the case, who has received death threats and abuse on social media from Trump supporters, could still decide to support the Justice Department’s motion, even if the former President wants to keep the information secret.
“This is what it looks like when you see the rule of law fighting back against Trump’s lies,” Nick Akerman, a former assistant US attorney for the Southern District of New York, told CNN’s Erin Burnett.
“I think it is extremely unlikely that Donald Trump is going to prevail here.”
Garland’s play is a clear attempt to push back on the fury from Republican officials over the unprecedented search warrant at the former President’s home. Lawmakers, media pundits and Trump supporters have unleashed unhinged claims that the US is now nothing more than a police state, with a Gestapo-like secret police, and has descended into tyranny.
In deciding to come before the cameras at the Justice Department, Garland did not just call Trump’s bluff and bow to pressure from Republican leaders who have demanded to know the justification for the search. He sought to protect his department and the judicial process as he insisted every step in the probe was taken with deliberation. His short appearance, in which he did not take questions, was scripted to rebut specific criticisms and the out-of-control conspiracy theories on the right.
“Faithful adherence to the rule of law is the bedrock principle of the Justice Department and of our democracy,” Garland said.
“Upholding the rule of law means applying the law evenly, without fear or favor,” he said, implying that not even ex-presidents are shielded if there are suspicions that they have committed a crime. Garland also spoke out forcibly in defense of the FBI and Justice Department rank-and-file, calling them “dedicated, patriotic public servants,” as Trump’s lackeys portray the bureau as a politicized arm of Democratic chicanery.
The attorney general’s remarks, a dramatic Washington moment, were a sign of the extraordinary sensitivity and significance of the investigation into the former President. Generally, the FBI says little about ongoing probes unless someone is charged — a step that, if it happens, seems some ways away in this case.
An unsealed search warrant will not comprehensively establish whether the department’s move against Trump was justified or was an overreach. But Garland’s initiative does suggest firm confidence in any case the bureau is building against Trump. It also shows that the department, right from the top, stands behind the decision to press ahead with a search — in the obvious knowledge that it would trigger an extraordinary and vehement backlash from Trump.
The idea that the entire affair is just some politically motivated plot hatched by legal hacks — the essential Trump case against it — is much harder to believe after Garland’s appearance.
Trump’s lawyers have not yet responded to the DOJ’s motion.
The former President appears to have three options. He could release the search warrant and inventory of items that the FBI removed from his resort; he could accede to the department’s request that it is opened by the court; or he could oppose the release of the warrant to the public.
In a logical universe, the latter option would seem unlikely since the ex-President busted his own privacy by breaking news of the FBI search in a politicized screed on Monday night. And the Justice Department is essentially arguing in its filing to the court that the public’s interest in knowing what really led to the search is now greater than Trump’s interest in keeping the details under wraps. The public interest is arguably even greater in light of the Post’s reporting about nuclear documentation.
“For him to come back now and say, ‘I don’t want this’ would be very odd and bizarre,” said Jared Carter, a professor at Vermont Law School.
But Trump doesn’t play by normal rules. Given his lifelong record of exhausting every legal option to thwart accountability and the incapacity of judicial and political institutions to constrain him, a counter-intuitive legal strategy cannot be ruled out.
Whether the ex-President follows through with his pledge not to oppose the release of documents in the case is likely to become clearer on Friday.
Republicans shift the goalposts
The reporting about the FBI seeking nuclear documentation at Mar-a-Lago raises new questions for Republicans who have been attacking the bureau and the Justice Department over the search without any apparent knowledge of what it was about. In perhaps a telling sign of how Thursday night’s developments have scrambled the messaging of Trump’s usual defenders, the conservative House Freedom Caucus scuttled a planned news conference on the Mar-a-Lago search hours after the Post report on the nuclear documents was released.
Garland’s move earlier Thursday should have defused demands from Republicans for him to speak publicly about the search and to publish the warrant. But as soon as the attorney general stopped talking, key Republicans demanded more.
“What I am looking for is the predicate for the search,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said in a statement.
“Was the information provided to the judge sufficient and necessary to authorize a raid on the former president’s home within ninety days of the midterm election? I am urging, actually insisting, the DOJ and the FBI lay their cards on the table as to why this course of action was necessary,” the South Carolina Trump ally added.
While Garland asked for the unsealing of the search warrant, which could come with an inventory of documents taken from Trump’s residence, he did not ask for the unsealing of affidavits meant to show probable cause that a crime had been committed in support of the warrant application. So Graham made his appeal in the knowledge that he is asking for a step that would infringe longstanding Justice Department guidelines — and could undermine any criminal case that the FBI may eventually level against the former President.
Trump himself responded to Garland’s on-camera appearance with one of his characteristic “Witch Hunt” posts on his Truth Social media network.
It is impossible to verify statements from an ex-President who lied as a matter of course while in office. But several of Trump’s previous claims that he was suddenly targeted in a “raid” and a “siege” by FBI agents out of the blue were undermined by Thursday’s developments. CNN’s Evan Perez, Gabby Orr and Pamela Brown, for instance, reported that federal investigators served an earlier grand jury subpoena and took away documents from Mar-a-Lago in June. This seems to indicate that Monday’s search was a last resort and supports Garland’s contention that the FBI took steps to ensure the search caused as little disruption as possible.
But the attorney general is also trying a strategy that has perpetually failed with Trump — wielding facts and legal norms to shatter his wall of lies and falsehoods.
Some Trump allies have already floated another conspiracy theory — that the FBI planted documents in the ex-President’s residence.
Nearly two years after Trump lost the last election, the nation faces yet another exhausting challenge to the rule of law from the twice-impeached ex-President.
Facts and truth are once again the first casualties.
This story has been updated with additional developments.