WASHINGTON — Attorney General Merrick B. Garland on Thursday called former President Donald J. Trump’s bluff.
Ever since the F.B.I. executed a search warrant at Mr. Trump’s Florida residence on Monday, Mr. Trump and his supporters have been portraying the search as baseless and politically motivated.
The investigation centers on whether Mr. Trump improperly took sensitive materials with him from the White House and then failed to return all of them — including classified documents — when the National Archives and the Justice Department demanded that he do so.
But Mr. Trump has chosen to keep secret the warrant and the list of what the F.B.I. took from his Mar-a-Lago club and estate — documents that very likely lay out what law or laws investigators believe may have been broken, what evidence supporting that belief they thought they would find there and what they seized.
Mr. Garland and the investigators working on the case had made no public comments after the search, which allowed Mr. Trump and his supporters to make ever more elaborate claims of official wrongdoing and abuse of power.
More Coverage of the F.B.I. Search of Trump’s Home
- A Risky Decision: The F.B.I. search of former President Donald J. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate is a high-stakes gamble by the Justice Department, but Mr. Trump faces risks of his own.
- A Long Feud: The search was the culmination of a lengthy conflict between a former president proud of his disdain for rules and officials charged with protecting the nation’s records and secrets.
- Trump’s Reaction: In the wake of the search, Mr. Trump has accused the nation’s justice system of being exactly what he tried to turn it into: a political weapon for a president.
- Violent Rhetoric: Some pro-Trump media figures reacted to the search with talk of “war,” the clearest outburst of such language since the days leading up to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
But on Thursday, Mr. Garland broke his silence.
Speaking from a podium at the Justice Department, the attorney general said he had personally approved the request for a search warrant. He denounced the “unfounded attacks on the professionalism” and integrity of the F.B.I. and prosecutors.
And — most importantly — he announced that the Justice Department had filed a motion to unseal the warrant used in the search, as well as the inventory of what the F.B.I. took away, so that the government could make them public.
In so doing, the attorney general alluded to the fact that Mr. Trump was free to release the documents himself, but has chosen not to do so. “Copies of both the warrant and the F.B.I. property receipt were provided on the day of the search to the former president’s counsel, who was on site during the search,” Mr. Garland said.
Moving quickly, a federal magistrate judge — Bruce E. Reinhart, who has also come under attack by Trump supporters — set a deadline of 3 p.m. on Friday for the department to relay any objection from Mr. Trump about unsealing the documents. In his brief remarks, Mr. Garland said he decided to make a public statement because Mr. Trump had confirmed the action and because of the “substantial public interest in this matter.”
If Mr. Trump acquiesces, the public will have more information about the basis for the search — information that could rebut the former president’s claims that the Justice Department acted without cause. If Mr. Trump fights the disclosure, however, he risks looking as though he has something to hide.
Either way, there is another important caveat. Mr. Garland did not propose unsealing the department’s application for the search warrant and any accompanying affidavit from a criminal investigator explaining why there was probable cause to believe the search would uncover evidence of a crime.
Those materials would lay out in starker detail not just what criminal investigators think they know — for example, whether they believed Mr. Trump was illegally hoarding government documents, whether some of those files were classified and where at Mar-a-Lago they were being stored — but how the investigators knew those things.
In short, the application would make clear whether the Justice Department is talking to one or more confidential sources in the Trump camp who are providing information.
It is not surprising that the Justice Department is not proposing unsealing that particularly sensitive material because it would be careful to protect its sources. But at the same time, that is what Mr. Trump’s supporters are most eager to learn.
Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is a close Trump ally, released a statement on Thursday afternoon saying that he wanted to know the basis for the search — alluding to “the deep mistrust of the F.B.I. and D.O.J.” among the former president’s supporters.
Mr. Graham noted that in the Russia investigation, surveillance warrants obtained against an adviser to Mr. Trump were later deemed unjustified. The F.B.I. failed to tell the court about evidence that undercut its claim the adviser was most likely a Russian agent, according to an inspector general report.
“What I am looking for is the predicate for the search,” Mr. Graham said. “Was the information provided to the judge sufficient and necessary to authorize a raid on the former president’s home within 90 days of the midterm election? I am urging, actually insisting, the D.O.J. and the F.B.I. lay their cards on the table as to why this course of action was necessary. Until that is done the suspicion will continue to mount.”
By that standard, Mr. Graham and other Trump allies are unlikely to be satisfied with the documents that Mr. Garland is proposing to make public. The underlying application may be unsealed and become public someday — but that typically happens after an indictment, such as when a defendant files a motion to suppress evidence gathered in a search by arguing that it lacked a sufficient legal basis.
Still, even the documents the Justice Department wants to make public could shed significant light on why investigators carried out the search — documents that, for some reason, Mr. Trump has so far seen as in his interest to keep secret.
“Federal law, longstanding department rules, and our ethical obligations prevent me from providing further details as to the basis of the search at this time,” Mr. Garland said, adding: “This is all I can say right now. More information will be made available in the appropriate way and at the appropriate time.”