Politico

Top DOJ official: Trump Mar-a-Lago investigation still in 'early stages'


WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A top Justice Department official said Thursday the investigation into the handling of classified records housed at former President Donald Trump’s private residence is “in its early stages,” suggesting a long road ahead for the explosive probe.

“This investigation is open,” said Jay Bratt, the head of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence division.

Bratt, who was present in court alongside U.S. Attorney Juan Gonzalez, characterized the timeline of the investigation during a hearing in the federal courthouse here. The hastily convened session was called by Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart — who authorized the Aug. 8 FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate — to resolve efforts by media outlets and a conservative advocacy group to unseal crucial details about the basis for the search.

Bratt argued that releasing the underlying FBI affidavit justifying the search could jeopardize “several witnesses” whose accounts of Trump’s actions were specific enough that the sources for them might be easily identified.

“This is not a precedent that we want to set,” Bratt indicated.

During the hearing, which ran just over an hour, Reinhart made clear that he was inclined to release at least a portion of the affidavit.

“I’m not prepared to find the affidavit should be fully sealed,” he said.

But Reinhart also signaled he would likely allow significant redactions and a final resolution on the issue of public access to the pivotal court filing may still be a long way off.

The judge gave the Justice Department a week to submit proposed redactions and may hold a closed-door hearing on the matter with prosecutors if he opts against keeping the entire document under seal. The department could also appeal an unfavorable ruling.

Last week, Reinhart approved an extraordinarily rare motion by the Justice Department to unseal the search warrant itself, an outcome proposed by Attorney General Merrick Garland amid a torrent of attacks from Trump and his allies. The warrant revealed that the bureau was investigating potential violations of the Espionage Act and the Presidential Records Act, as well as obstruction of justice.

Several media organizations quickly asked Reinhart to unseal the affidavit, citing the extraordinary public interest, but with redactions as necessary to protect the integrity of the investigation.

“The public interest could not be greater,” said Chuck Tobin, a lawyer representing the media groups, calling the Mar-a-Lago search “one of the most significant events in the nation’s history.”

Justice Department prosecutors have argued that the redactions would need to be so extensive as to render the affidavit useless.

“It really serves no purpose,” Bratt said Thursday. “It does not edify the public in any meaningful way.”

Bratt also warned that revealing new details about the investigation could heighten threats against those involved. He noted two FBI agents who were identified in right-wing media outlets for signing property receipts connected to the search had faced threats.

“This is a volatile situation,” Bratt said.

While Bratt’s comments suggested the probe could hang over Trump for a considerable period of time, they could also be seen as signaling that further developments in the investigation are unlikely before the midterm congressional elections in November. The Justice Department typically binds itself to internal restrictions limiting overt or politically explosive decisions in the 60 to 90 days prior to a federal election.

Prior to Thursday’s hearing, several former officials and legal commentators predicted that the high-profile search and seizure operation earlier in August might be the last the public hears of the probe for months.

Reinhart, who has held his post since 2018, has been the target of an onslaught of threats and antisemitic attacks directed at him, though he did not address them during Thursday’s hearing. Some Republican lawmakers have harshly criticized the judge and accused him, without basis, of bias against Trump. Trump and his allies have also assailed the FBI for alleged political motivations in the search of Mar-a-Lago, and have asserted, without evidence, that materials were planted there. Trump’s attorney and family members have indicated that the former president and his allies watched the search unfold remotely via Mar-a-Lago’s security cameras.

Trump attorney Christina Bobb was spotted at the courthouse on Thursday and told reporters she was there to observe.

Trump has repeatedly ratcheted up his attacks against the FBI even as the agency has warned of a barrage of violent threats to personnel. An armed man was shot and killed by police last week after he attempted to attack an FBI office in Cincinnati, and a Pennsylvania man was arrested earlier this week after threatening to kill FBI agents.

As the hearing was getting underway, a group of pro-Trump protesters began circling the area outside the courthouse. One man, driving a red pick-up truck, had a “Trump 2024” flag mounted to the bed. Police officers from the Department of Homeland Security were guarding the outer perimeter of the court building.

In court filings, the Justice Department has argued against unsealing the underlying affidavit related to the search warrant, citing potential harm to the department’s ongoing criminal investigation and risks to “highly classified” information. Doing so could hurt the cooperation of witnesses, provide a “roadmap” to the investigation and compromise future steps, DOJ has said.

Instead, DOJ has asked the judge to unseal another set of filings related to the warrant, including a cover sheet, the Justice Department’s Aug. 5 motion to seal the warrant and the judge’s order granting that motion.

In a Wednesday filing, a group of media organizations including CNN, CBS and McClatchy argued the public had a clear interest in viewing the affidavit given the intense attention on the search and the historic nature of the event. Both Judicial Watch and the media organizations agreed that certain redactions to the affidavit would likely be necessary to preserve the Justice Department’s legitimate interests in the ongoing investigation.

The Justice Department’s vehement opposition to releasing more details about the investigation into the documents housed at Mar-a-Lago could complicate oversight efforts on Capitol Hill, where several top lawmakers have already demanded a range of information from DOJ as well as intelligence officials. It’ll ultimately be up to Reinhart or a more senior judge or court to decide whether Congress can obtain the affidavit and other materials.

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s chairman, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), and vice chairman, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), have already asked the Justice Department to provide copies of all of the classified material that was seized from Mar-a-Lago. They also asked that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence draw up an “assessment of potential risks to national security,” a committee spokesperson said.

So far, it’s the only bipartisan oversight request related to the search of Trump’s Florida residence. But the executive branch has historically resisted congressional inquiries about ongoing law-enforcement actions, arguing that it could compromise the investigation. The Justice Department made a similar argument earlier this week when prosecutors explained why they opposed the release of the affidavit of probable cause.

Some lawmakers are confronting that precedent head-on. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), for example, said that in addition to releasing the search warrant, the Justice Department should have also explained why it was necessary to execute a search warrant on Trump’s home.

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