(The Hill) – Attorney General Merrick Garland was quiet all week as former President Trump, GOP lawmakers and cable news pundits theorized about the FBI’s search Monday of the former president’s Mar-a-Lago estate.
On Thursday, he ended the silence, announcing the Department of Justice (DOJ) would move to unseal the warrant authorizing the search and defending the integrity of the FBI, which had been under heavy attack all week.
“I will not stand by silently when their integrity is unfairly attacked,” Garland said, saying the FBI and DOJ had been subject to “unfounded attacks” on their professionalism.
“The men and women of the FBI and the Justice Department are dedicated, patriotic public servants,” Garland said.
The attorney general had been under pressure to speak even though it is a standard for DOJ not to comment publicly on details about active investigations.
But in this case, the silence had been filled by the remarks of lawmakers, a former president and some cable news pundits who had gone so far as to suggest the FBI might have planted evidence at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence.
Garland on Thursday sought to push back, while putting the onus on Trump to agree to unseal the warrant — which could lead to more information about the fight between the ex-president and DOJ over classified documents reportedly taking without authorization to Florida.
Following standard practice, investigators had provided Trump’s attorneys with their own copy of the search warrant and a receipt that would have itemized the materials seized during the search, neither of which the former president has publicly released.
If a federal judge grants the DOJ’s motion, both documents would be made public, likely in addition to a law enforcement affidavit detailing the reasons why investigators suspected there was evidence of criminal conduct on Trump’s property.
Just before Garland’s public remarks, The New York Times reported Trump received a subpoena this spring in search of documents that federal investigators believed he had failed to turn over earlier in the year. The news of the subpoena suggested federal officials had tried more gentle approaches to reach some kind of agreement with Trump over the return of the documents in question.
On cable news and on social media, the FBI search has been a No. 1 story, and speculation about the FBI’s motives and actions has been running wild.
“If you are associated with Donald Trump in any way, you better cross all your i’s and dot all your t’s,” Sean Hannity, a close personal friend of Trump, declared on his show Monday. “Because they are coming for you with the full force of the federal government.”
On Tuesday morning, one of Trump’s attorneys, Christina Bobb, a former host on the staunchly pro-Trump network One America News, said she “was not allowed to observe” the search.
“There is no security that something wasn’t planted,” Bobb said. “I’m not saying that’s what they did. They have to go through the legal process to figure out what was taken and all of that.”
Garland on Thursday said a Trump attorney was on site during the search.
There has been no evidence to suggest anything was planted by the FBI at Mar-a-Lago.
The search was authorized by a federal judge, and while Republicans have linked it to political motivations, the White House has said that President Biden was unaware it was about to take place. No evidence has been presented to suggest Biden had prior knowledge of the search.
By Wednesday morning, the theory that the FBI might have planted evidence had made its way onto Fox News’ highly rated morning show “Fox & Friends,” where host Ainsley Earnhardt expressed concern at allegations from Trump’s attorneys that they were not allowed to be present during the search.
“His lawyer said they brought in backpacks, what was in those backpacks? Did they bring those in to fill them up or did they have something in there?” Earnhardt asked during an interview with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)
On his evening opinion show Tuesday, Fox host Jesse Watters also floated the idea.
“They could have easily negotiated the return of documents like that without guns and warrants,” Watters said. “What the FBI is probably doing is planting evidence, which is what they did during the Russia hoax.”
On MSNBC, hosts and guests have spent the last three days speculating about what the FBI could have been looking for at Trump’s home and suggesting the former president was withholding information about the search deliberately to fuel speculation and keep himself in the news.
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“That’s what this is all about, Trump took this public because he thought it was in his interest not just to spur these conspiracy theories but to pressure on the DOJ, what would they say,” said the political pundit John Heilman Wednesday while guest hosting a show on MSNBC.
During an appearance on the network’s “Morning Joe” program, contributor Maya Wiley decried Trump and his defenders for “attacking non-politicized and independent law enforcement.”
Longtime host Andrea Mitchell this week called a promise from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to investigate DOJ over what led to the search if Republicans take back power of Congress this fall “outrageous.”
“Merrick Garland is the most careful, judicious to a fault some would say attorney general in this case,” Mitchell said.
Observers say the way Monday’s event and the ensuing political fallout is being spun on cable news fits a predictable pattern.
“The media and the internet hate a vacuum,” said Peter Loge, the director of George Washington University’s Project on Ethics in Political Communication. “Absent information, pundits, columnists and voters will fill that vacuum with speculation.”
Loge compared some of the rhetoric across political media in the wake of Monday’s search to that of an impatient child in the back seat of a car.
“It’s like ‘are we there yet? Are we there yet?’ Cable news can sound like six-year-olds demanding answers,” he said. “And absent information, news organizations that focus on political controversy will either make up a reason for their not being answers or they’ll fill in their best answer for themselves.”
Garland, on Thursday, appeared to be trying to take back control of the narrative with his statement.
“All Americans are entitled to the even-handed application of the law, to due process of law and to the presumption of innocence,” Garland said in remarks at DOJ headquarters. “Much of our work is by necessity conducted out of the public eye. We do that to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans and to protect the integrity of our investigations. Federal law, long standing department rules and our ethical obligations prevent me from providing further details as to the basis of the search at this time.”