Attorney General Merrick Garland didn’t spend very much time Thursday afternoon addressing Monday’s FBI search at Mar-a-Lago. But in the few minutes Garland stood at the lectern in the Department of Justice, he managed to wrestle several major talking points away from former President Donald Trump’s supporters.
First, Garland announced that the DOJ would be asking a court to unseal portions of the warrant used to search Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. Trump has chosen to keep those details of the warrant and its scope under wraps, prompting Republicans to accuse the FBI of conducting a politically motivated raid and forcing Garland to step forward and defend the work of the bureau.
Providing Trump with a chance to intervene is a solid gambit on multiple levels.
True to his word, even before Garland made his brief appearance, the motions were filed on the docket relating to the search warrant. “Given the intense public interest presented by a search of a residence of a former President, the government believes these factors favor unsealing the search warrant" and related materials, the court filing reads. “That said, the former President should have an opportunity to respond to this Motion and lodge objections, including with regards to any ‘legitimate privacy interests’ or the potential for other ‘injury’ if these materials are made public.” The filing also requests that the court unseal a “redacted Property Receipt listing items seized pursuant to the search."
Providing Trump with a chance to intervene is a solid gambit on multiple levels. It signals to the public that the DOJ has nothing to hide, and it puts the ball in Trump’s court. Trump must now decide whether to have his lawyers intervene against releasing the warrant and the list of materials recovered.
Already in filing the motion Garland has undercut GOP attention-seekers such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who earlier this week tweeted urging the attorney general and FBI Director Christopher Wray to “RELEASE THE WARRANT NOW. The American people deserve to see it. NOW.” Cruz's wish will likely soon be granted, but he probably won’t like the contents. Given the reporting this week on the classified nature of the materials that the FBI was trying to obtain, and the subpoena it had already been granted to recover them, it’s very likely that the document will be embarrassing to the loud voices calling to “defund the FBI.”
Second, Garland made clear that not only was he aware of the search warrant before it was executed, but that he had personally signed off on it. This poured cold water all over a Newsweek story that claimed that Garland had been kept in the dark. That story, in turn, led to claims that some FBI agents had potentially “gone rogue,” as Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the second ranking House Republican, said on Fox News Thursday morning.
By shouldering the responsibility, Garland both made clear that he was fully in the loop and that there was no chance the FBI was forging its own path. He also took some of the heat off Wray, whose leadership has been under fire from Republicans despite being appointed by Trump himself.
Now we wait for the court’s ruling so that we can see what cards he has laid on the table.
Notably, Garland did not say President Joe Biden had been involved in the decision, as many Republicans have baselessly theorized. The White House has denied any awareness of the pending search, which is as it should be. Many of this week’s accusers have conveniently forgotten that it was Trump who continually prodded the firewall between the president and the Justice Department, making his desire for investigations of his political opponents widely known. (Trump was even impeached the first time because of his attempt to get Ukraine to do what his own DOJ wouldn’t: Open a politically motivated investigation of the Bidens.)
I disagree with people who say Garland’s address would have been better as a tweet or that it should have been longer. The hastily called conference certainly got the press’s full attention. By appearing on camera, Garland gave the sound bites that will be replayed endlessly over the next few days, hammering home his points. In making clear that only Trump’s team could prevent the details of the warrant from coming out, he eliminated the potential of further claims of DOJ malfeasance.
Garland’s address was succinct, to the point, and did what needed to be done before he left the stage. Now we wait for the court’s ruling so that we can see what cards he has laid on the table. Seems to me though that Garland is playing a winning hand. Why else would he so calmly call Trump’s bluff?