Mar-a-Lago mess: How Merrick Garland can regain the public’s trust
In a three-minute press conference following the FBI raid on Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home, Attorney General Merrick Garland cut a defiant figure, condemning critics of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the FBI: “I will not stand by silently when their integrity is unfairly attacked.” He then left the stage without taking questions or answering that criticism.
It was a signature moment for Garland, who often responds to controversies with belated, rote remarks. His brief comments had all of the substance of a Hallmark card that read, “Trust us, we’re the government.” Yet trust has to be earned, not simply demanded.
This coming week, Garland has another opportunity to show leadership and reassure the public by ordering substantive disclosures in the proposed redacted affidavit justifying the raid. If not, this will be the fifth missed opportunity to demonstrate that the DOJ deserves the public’s trust.
The indignation expressed by Garland in his public remarks seemed to ignore legitimate concerns over the DOJ’s motivations and record in past Trump-related investigations. Both the FBI and DOJ have documented histories of false court statements and bias against Trump, leading to the collapse of the Russia-collusion allegations and the firing of high-ranking officials.
Garland was aware of that history and the troubling context when he ordered the unprecedented raid on the home of a former president and the expected 2024 political opponent of President Biden. He may be justified in ordering it, but he cannot simply dismiss critics as unhinged extremists.
It is equally troubling that, at every earlier opportunity to make a modest step to assure such citizens, Garland has failed:
It is unclear why Garland opted for a search warrant rather than a second subpoena like one used in June to seize boxes of documents from Mar-a-Lago. Trump’s team claims to have communications from the FBI reflecting that they cooperated with the search, then followed the FBI’s request to reinforce security on a storage room. It is unclear what communications occurred after the June meeting — or, if remaining documents were a concern, why the DOJ did not immediately issue a second subpoena. While the DOJ claimed time was of the essence to retrieve national security material, Garland reportedly waited weeks before signing off on the search warrant application and the FBI waited a weekend to execute the search. There was plenty of time to seek a voluntary surrender or consensual search.
The second opportunity occurred when the DOJ sought the warrant. While knowing that every aspect of the search would be scrutinized, it adopted language so broad that it was virtually the legal version of Captain Jack Sparrow’s “Take what you can … Give nothing back.” It allowed the seizure of any box containing any document with any classification of any kind — and all boxes stored with that box; it allowed the seizure of any writing from Trump’s presidency. If Garland wanted to assure Americans of an apolitical motive, he could have crafted that warrant more narrowly. Instead, the government scooped up everything, from passports to attorney-client material.
Garland’s third opportunity came with the raid itself. Rather than descending on Trump’s home with 30 to 40 officers and a dozen vehicles, this is a search that could have been done by a few inconspicuous agents without risk. They didn’t have to arrive by Uber, but they also didn’t need to arrive like this. Instead, as with other Trump targets from Roger Stone to Paul Manafort and Peter Navarro, the DOJ chose the most heavy-handed, overwhelming-force option.
After the raid, Garland missed his fourth opportunity. It was obvious the raid would ignite a country that is a tinderbox, particularly before a major election. Garland could have issued a statement reassuring the public and immediately secured the documents, asking for an independent special master or federal magistrate to sort out any material beyond the warrant’s scope, including attorney-client material. That would have ended speculation about a pretextual search aimed at finding incriminating evidence of other crimes, including material related to the Jan. 6 riot. Garland not only didn’t take such a precaution but reportedly refused Trump’s request for such an appointment. Garland then compounded the problem by refusing to address basic concerns in his brief presser, including the allegation of a pretextual search.
Garland now has a fifth opportunity in responding to a magistrate’s order to recommend parts of the affidavit for public release. Garland initially refused to release the affidavit, then implausibly asserted that nothing in it could be released in the interests of national security. Most affidavits have sections that can be released without damaging an investigation or compromising witnesses, including information already known to the target. In this case, Garland could, at a minimum, release the account of the communications with the Trump team. It may be discomforting for DOJ officials accustomed to total control over such information, but it would reassure the public in a growing political crisis.
Obviously, after insisting no disclosures could be made, it is now doubly difficult for Garland to reverse himself. Such a bold move would be out of character for Garland, who often appears more of a passenger than the driver of his own department. But he needs now to be proactive rather than reactive to this controversy — by overruling those in the DOJ who pushed for the raid and demanded a total bar on disclosures of the affidavit.
What is clear is that Garland’s “trust us” mantra has done little to assuage concerns. Indeed, that seems almost comical to many people, given the Crossfire Hurricane debacle and the fact that this investigation is being handled by the same section.
Transparency on the search may push some at the DOJ outside of their comfort zone, but the raid has already has pushed many on both sides of the political spectrum to the brink. One MSNBC host declared that the “civil war is here” while, in a shocking Rasmussen poll, 46 percent of Americans now view the FBI unfavorably and 53 percent believe it is being misused by the Biden administration. Even assuming that Rasmussen trends conservative, those numbers likely reflect the view of many of the more than 74 million people who voted for Trump in 2020.
So far, Garland has done little to earn the trust of almost half of the country. In this and other controversies, he has demanded respect but refused to take even modest measures to justify it.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.