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Justice Department asks a federal court to unseal warrant used to search Mar-a-Lago

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Former President Donald Trump says he will not oppose the release of documents related to the FBI search of his Mar-a-Lago home. Attorney General Merrick Garland yesterday said the Justice Department had asked a federal court in Florida to unseal them. But he also noted that the former president could have made them public at any time.

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MERRICK GARLAND: Both the warrant and the FBI property receipt were provided on the day of the search to the former president's counsel, who was onsite during the search.

MARTINEZ: Garland spoke just hours after an attempted attack on an FBI office in Cincinnati, Ohio. And he condemned the violent attacks and threats and rhetoric that he said are being aimed at DOJ officials and FBI agents.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARLAND: I will not stand by silently when their integrity is unfairly attacked.

MARTINEZ: For more, we're joined now by former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti. Renato, did the Justice Department wait too long to ask for the release of these documents?

RENATO MARIOTTI: I don't think so. In fact, in a typical case, you would expect that there wouldn't be a request at this point in time to have these documents released. You know, in the past, the Justice Department had spoken, for example, in the Clinton investigation, outside the bounds of what you would ordinarily see in an investigation. And that didn't turn out very well. So I think it was wise for the Justice Department to take a very careful course here.

MARTINEZ: The public pressure, do you think that had something to do with this?

MARIOTTI: Well, no question. I think that a lot of it had to do with misinformation that there was in the media. I note that the attorney general went out of his way to correct some inaccuracies that had been floating around in his statement. And I think he heard the outcry from many, including many elected officials. And I think that definitely played a role in this decision.

MARTINEZ: Do you think, though, it will make a difference to critics? I mean, after all, the underlying affidavits with detailed evidence are not part of this request for the court. So do you think what we're going to see when we see it will make that much of a difference?

MARIOTTI: No. And to be very blunt, I mean, I think even if the affidavit was released and Merrick Garland answered every question that they had, I just think that there are ultimately...

MARTINEZ: (Laughter).

MARIOTTI: ...Are critics who are going to criticize this because they're going to, you know, criticize the Justice Department if it is searching a residence of Donald Trump regardless.

MARTINEZ: So considering that, then why do it? I mean, do we go back to just trying to set the record straight?

MARIOTTI: Well, I think there's a couple of reasons. One is that because the Justice Department was saying nothing - and that was usually the course, of course, that the Justice Department takes - I think it was creating a vacuum. And it allowed the former president to fill that vacuum with misinformation. Essentially, he was able to hold back the warrant and the inventory that he did have in his possession and, basically, spin a misleading narrative of the facts. And what this did is it essentially, you know, ended that vacuum by putting out some accurate information and, essentially, I would say, forced the former president's hand. I mean, he has been saying that he wants everything public but deliberately hasn't released the information that he had. And so essentially, the Justice Department called his bluff on that.

MARTINEZ: It's always amazing, though, how saying nothing can sound so loud.

MARIOTTI: Absolutely. I actually think it added a power to the statement that Garland did make. I mean, it's interesting, right? He had a very short statement. It was only about 4 minutes long. But it definitely had a power, even though he didn't say much because there was all this silence. And it was clear that he was taking great care to say as little as possible to protect the integrity of the investigation and to take care of the rights of, in this case, a person who has not been charged.

MARTINEZ: So let's say we go to release these documents, how detailed of a picture will we get about what exactly was seized?

MARIOTTI: Well, you'll get a detailed picture of exactly what was seized because the inventory will have a detailed list. And essentially, the list will be sufficient to identify each of the items that was seized well enough to ensure that if something wasn't returned that there would be some record that the owner of the property could use to try to make a claim against it later. That's kind of the reason that you have an inventory like that, is so that the property holder can say, hey, I didn't get my snowblower back or whatever was seized by the FBI in a typical case. What we won't see, of course, is a lot of the underlying evidence...

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

MARIOTTI: ...That was used to obtain the warrant.

MARTINEZ: What kind of conclusion could a rational observer get from what we might see?

MARIOTTI: Well, I - you know, if reports are accurate that this is regarding highly classified information, including potential nuclear secrets, then I think the information that an observer could get is, first of all, potentially the sheer volume of classified information that was on the president's residence at the time. You may get some detail regarding a very, very high level, vague information regarding what that was about. So that could give you a sense of whether it's the sort of information that he would have had a purpose in having in his residence or keeping after his presidency. And I think you'll also, you know, through that list, potentially get a sense of why the Justice Department may have had some reason why they thought they needed to go in and get this information.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. So it sounds like it could be crucial then, these documents, if prosecutors want to make a case against the former president.

MARIOTTI: Oh, I think that's absolutely right. And I think, also, it will justify the search potentially or not. I mean, in other words - you know, there was a tagline that the former president was using right after the search saying, if they did it to me, they could do it to you. Well, I don't have sensitive nuclear secrets in my basement. And...

MARTINEZ: That we know of, Renato, that we know of.

MARIOTTI: There you go. Well, I think if they did, they would not have sent me a subpoena and asked politely for the nuclear secrets back. I think the FBI would have, you know, beat down my door quite some time ago.

MARTINEZ: One more thing, quickly. Does the Justice Department have any obligation to offer any kind of legal protection for Donald Trump's rights if he's charged with a crime?

MARIOTTI: Well, no, they do not. I mean, not in this instance. There would be no legal obligation for them to do so.

MARTINEZ: Former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti. Thanks a lot.

MARIOTTI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.