DOJ asks court to unseal Trump search warrant

The Justice Department on Thursday moved to unseal a warrant authorizing a search of former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate this week following escalating demands for answers about the unprecedented investigation.

“The public’s clear and powerful interest in understanding what occurred under these circumstances weighs heavily in favor of unsealing,” Justice Department lawyers wrote in a court filing submitted Thursday afternoon.

The move is a departure from the department’s typical practice of staying silent about ongoing investigations, underscoring the significance of the first overt sign of an escalating criminal probe with a former president at the center.

The filing coincided with a public statement from Attorney General Merrick Garland, his first since FBI agents executed the search warrant on Monday.

Garland said he personally signed off on the decision to apply for and execute that search warrant, and that the decision was not made “lightly.”

“All Americans are entitled to the even-handed application of the law, to due process of law and to the presumption of innocence,” Garland said in remarks at DOJ headquarters. “Much of our work is by necessity conducted out of the public eye. We do that to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans and to protect the integrity of our investigations. Federal law, long standing department rules and our ethical obligations prevent me from providing further details as to the basis of the search at this time.”

Trump’s attorneys were provided a copy of the warrant and a receipt listing the seized materials, the Justice Department said in its court filing. The former president’s legal team has not publicly released those documents but his lawyer Christina Bobb has said during media appearances this week that the search concerned potentially classified information being stored at the Florida property.

The court filing on Thursday also cited Trump’s own public comments as well as commentary from his legal team about the search as a reason for why it should be made public.

“As such, the occurrence of the search and indications of the subject matter involved are already public,” the DOJ lawyers wrote.

The filing on Thursday was signed by Jay Bratt, the head of the DOJ’s counterintelligence office, and Juan Antonio Gonzalez, the U.S. Attorney in Miami.

Trump will have an opportunity to argue against unsealing the materials if he disagrees with the move. Attorneys representing the former president did not immediately respond when asked for comment.

The New York Times and the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch have both filed similar motions to unseal the search warrant and accompanying materials in recent days.

In addition to the search warrant itself, the sealed materials at issue include the FBI’s inventory of what it seized during Monday’s search and likely a law enforcement affidavit laying out the basis to suspect there was evidence of criminal conduct at Mar-a-Lago.

The New York Times reported earlier on Thursday that the DOJ had issued at least two subpoenas in the months before the extraordinary search of Trump’s home.

The first, reportedly issued this past spring, preceded a meeting between Bratt and Trump’s attorneys. According to multiple reports, Bratt was shown into a room in the estate’s basement where Trump was storing materials from his time in the White House.

The Justice Department official later asked Trump to better secure the room, prompting staff to install a padlock on the door. Following the meeting, investigators also reportedly subpoenaed the Trump Organization for security camera footage outside the room where the materials were being kept.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that investigators had been tipped off that Trump was potentially in custody of classified documents, even in the months after the former president had turned over 15 boxes of materials to the National Archives in January.

A National Archives official told Congress earlier this year that those boxes included material marked as classified.

The FBI as well as the Department of Justice has faced a barrage of criticism in the days since the search warrant was executed at Trump’s home.

That includes comments from Trump himself that the search was purely political and even insinuated without any evidence that FBI agents may have planted evidence during the search.

Garland did not name any names in his brief statement, but confronted such criticism head on.

“Let me address recent unfounded attacks on the professionalism of the FBI and Justice Department agents and prosecutors. I will not stand by silently when their integrity is unfairly attacked. The men and women of the FBI and the Justice Department are dedicated patriotic public servants,” he said.

The FBI union and FBI Director Chrisopher Wray offered similar sentiments in statements released shortly after Garland’s announcement.

“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,” Wray 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.”

The DOJ’s usual insistence on secrecy around ongoing investigations had opened the door for baseless accusations and conspiracy theories from Trump’s supporters.

Garland’s comments came as some were criticizing DOJ for its silence on the search, complaining that the department was creating a vacuum.

The motion, however, does not signal any wholesale change in DOJ’s plans to remain tight-lipped about the investigation, and Garland’s three-minute statement ended with a refusal to take any questions.

“This is all I can say right now. More information will be made available in the appropriate way and at the appropriate time,” Garland said. 

It’s not clear what if any intersection the search of Trump’s Florida home might have with DOJ’s ongoing Jan. 6 probe, but that matter has accelerated in recent weeks.

Federal prosecutors have brought advisors to former Vice President Mike Pence before a grand jury while White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, was reportedly called to testify before a federal grand jury, as was his deputy Patrick Philbin.

DOJ has also executed search warrants on two attorneys who advised Trump: John Eastman, who crafted a memo detailing strategies for challenging the electoral certification, and Jeffrey Clark, a former DOJ attorney who Trump weighed installing as attorney general in order to forward investigations into his baseless claims of election fraud.

Updated 6:35 p.m.