Saturday, August 13, 2022

Garland must reveal more, otherwise this Trump raid looks like a nothingburger


We’re going to need to see everything.

We now know more about the search of Mar-a-Lago, and, of course, it has settled absolutely nothing.

 Reporting on the documents taken from former President Donald Trump’s property — as well as the release of the search warrant by the judge who approved it — has filled in some more outlines of the story, although there is too much we still don’t know.

The quagmire underlines what seems, at the very least, the unbelievable imprudence of the search.

If an FBI action is going to be so inflammatory that the attorney general of the United States can’t maintain a judicious silence about the matter more than a couple of days before publicly jousting with the target, it’s a pretty good indication it shouldn’t have been taken to begin with.

In the immediate aftermath of the Mar-a-Lago search, all the reporting was that Merrick Garland is a by-the-books, circumspect guy who was dead-set on abiding by the department’s policy of not commenting on an active investigation.

Then, lo and behold, on Thursday he was holding a press conference announcing that he was petitioning the judge to release the warrant, and double-dog daring Trump to oppose the unsealing.

How did Merrick Garland get in this situation in the first place? He approved a FBI search that any congressional intern at a happy hour down the street from the DOJ headquarters could have told him was sure to set half the country on fire.

The only way taking the risk — of all the political turmoil, of further eroding trust in our law-enforcement institutions — was worth it was if the stakes were incredibly high; if there was no way to continue negotiating with Trump about the documents, if there was some serious threat to national security in leaving the materials at Mar-a-Lago for another day.

It still seems unlikely that this threshold will be met. We’ve learned that some of the documents taken by the FBI were marked as so-called top-secret/sensitive compartmentalized information, indicating that they should be viewed only in secure government facilities.

The designation, though, doesn’t mean that they were blueprints for hypersonic missiles or lists of classified agents. The government routinely over-classifies, and it wouldn’t have been easy for anyone to waltz out of the White House with the nation’s most sensitive information.

The materials in the president’s daily brief are carried into the White House in a locked bag and carried out in a locked bag. The protocols around the handling of documents included in meetings in the Situation Room are very strict. The agencies that bring secret materials to meetings with the president and White House officials are responsible for bringing them back out.

It must have been a hectic scene when Trump was leaving the White House in January 2021, but that doesn’t mean that the White House ushers and military aides packing up for him would have been able to access, say, a triple-locked safe and box up the nuclear codes for shipment to Palm Beach. If they had tried, someone would have stopped them, or, failing that, immediately called The Washington Post to blow the whistle.

Speaking of the Post, it has reported that the FBI was seeking “classified documents relating to nuclear weapons” at Mar-a-Lago. Sounds serious. And maybe it is. But anyone who lived through the Russia Hoax knows that leakers constantly provided information to journalists carefully couched to sound as ominous as possible and then it was spun up further on social media and cable news.

Sure enough, the Post report had exactly this effect, as purportedly serious people proceeded to compare Trump to the Rosenbergs.

According to The Wall Street Journal account of what the FBI took away, it included much less concerning material, including binders of photos, the grant of clemency for Roger Stone, and something related to President Macron of France. All of this sounds like the kind of stuff a former president who likes having mementos would make off with and consider his own.

Is it possible to believe that Trump was careless in how he handled documents and brought to Florida things he shouldn’t have, while compounding the offense by not being forthcoming negotiations with the National Archives? Sure.

Is it also possible to believe — indeed, consistent with recent experience — that the Department of Justice and FBI worked themselves into tizzy over a relatively minor matters, or let themselves become tools in a political agenda they should have resisted? Absolutely.

The only way to resolve it (if that’s possible) will be completely transparency. If that’s uncomfortable for the Department of Justice, maybe it should have exercised more forbearance and better judgment and not brought the country to this place in the first place.

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