Justice Department officials urged a federal judge to keep under wraps the search warrant used in the FBI raid of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, fearing he would destroy evidence, according to court documents unsealed Thursday.
In a motion filed three days before more than 30 armed agents stormed Mr. Trump’s Palm Beach, Florida, residence, the Justice Department said a public search warrant “poses a risk to [the] safety” of the materials sought in the investigation.
“The United States believes there is good cause [to keep the warrant sealed] because the integrity of the investigation might be compromised and evidence might be destroyed,” wrote Juan Antonio Gonzalez, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
The petition to keep the search warrant sealed was one of three documents ordered to be made public by U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart.
That document, likely far meatier than the papers released Thursday, was not released. The judge gave the Justice Department a week to propose redactions and set a process for further disputes on the matter.
The documents immediately unsealed Thursday also included the search warrant’s cover sheet and application for the search warrant. The cover sheet revealed little, stating only that the Trump investigation did not originate from other Justice Department probes before 2019.
The search warrant application, signed by an FBI agent whose name is redacted, states that the agent believes the bureau will uncover evidence of a crime and the “contraband fruits of a crime,” or other illegally possessed materials.
It also says the FBI expects to find evidence relating to the willful retention of national defense information, concealment or removal of government records, and obstruction of a federal investigation.
He said the government “has not met its burden of showing the entire affidavit should remain sealed” but deserves “a full and fair opportunity” to propose redactions.
Those redactions could limit how much of the affidavit will become public.
The affidavit is seen as a crucial document for understanding the FBI’s reasoning behind the Mar-a-Lago raid.
It would lay out juicy details about the investigation of Mr. Trump, including why prosecutors thought a prompt search of his home was necessary and how the items seized during the raid tie into the overall FBI probe.
Jay Bratt, a Justice Department prosecutor, argued Thursday that the affidavit should remain sealed.
He said the country is in a “volatile” state and releasing the affidavit could jeopardize “several witnesses” whose accounts of Mr. Trump’s actions are specific enough to be easily identified.
“This is not a precedent we want to set,” Mr. Bratt said. “The government is very concerned about the safety of witnesses in the case.”
Attorneys for a consortium of media organizations and for a conservative advocacy group who have requested unsealing the affidavit said public interest justifies its release.
Charles Tobin, one of the attorneys for the media outlets, which include The Washington Post and The Associated Press, called the search of Mr. Trump’s residence “one of the most significant law enforcement events in the nation’s history.”
“The time for everyone to get it right is now,” he said.
James Moon, who represented Judicial Watch, a conservative advocacy group, said he was open to releasing the affidavit with redactions.
“I don’t think the floodgates should be open,” he said.
During Thursday’s roughly hourlong hearing on the unsealing requests, Mr. Bratt disclosed that the Justice Department probe into Mr. Trump is in “the early stages.” He suggested there will be many more twists and turns as the explosive investigation plays out.
“This investigation is open,” he said in court.
In a statement, Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich accused the Justice Department of trying to hide its corruption by keeping the affidavit under seal.
“Today, magistrate Judge Reinhart rejected the DOJ’s cynical attempt to hide the whole affidavit from Americans. No redactions should be necessary and the whole affidavit should be released, given the Democrats’ penchant for using redactions to hide government corruption, just like they did with the Russia hoax,” the statement said.
The hearing capped off a chaotic 10 days since FBI agents searched Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate and removed 11 sets of classified documents.
Some of the documents were marked top secret and “sensitive compartmented information” — the nation’s two most sensitive categories for classified materials, according to a receipt of what was taken from the property.
Sensitive compartmented information means that the secrets could cause “exceptionally grave” damage to U.S. intelligence if publicly revealed.
The court documents did not provide details about the types of information contained in the documents. The Washington Post reported last week that the materials related to nuclear weapons, but nothing in the materials unsealed so far confirms that.
Since the raid, Republicans have ramped up their criticism of the FBI and Attorney General Merrick Garland, who sought to defend himself in a hastily convened press statement last week.
Democrats, meanwhile, have cheered and defended the raid. They say Mr. Trump is being held accountable for his actions.
Mr. Trump has escalated his attacks against the FBI, even though he has offered to help tone down the political temperature.
The FBI has warned of violent threats to employees while protesters have gathered outside of field offices across the country.
An armed man was fatally shot by police in Ohio after he attempted to breach the FBI’s Cincinnati field office. A Pennsylvania man this week is facing federal criminal charges after threatening to kill FBI agents.
• This story is based in part on wire service reports.
• Jeff Mordock can be reached at email@example.com.
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