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FBI Search of Mar-a-Lago Tied to Classified White House Documents; Assessing Trump's Risk if He Mishandled White House Documents. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired August 09, 2022 - 10:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour, good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN ANCHOR: It's so nice to be back with you.

HARLOW: Good to have you.

MARQUARDT: I'm Alex Marquardt. I'm in for Jim Sciutto.

This morning, we are following several major stories this morning. In any moment now, President Joe Biden is going to be signing the Chips and Science Act. It's a historic, really, piece of bipartisan legislation that's aimed at boosting manufacturing and research in semiconductors. We'll be taking you to the White House when he does sign that bill.

HARLOW: Plus, just an extraordinary move by the Justice Department. The FBI executed a search of former President Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort and residence. Sources say this is related to the DOJ investigation into the handling of White House documents, including classified information that may have been brought from the White House to Trump's Florida property. And according to a person familiar with the matter, the search focused on Trump's offices and his personal quarters there. President Trump also said his personal safe was searched.

So, let's begin there this morning with our CNN Correspondent Leyla Santiago. She is outside of Mar-a-Lago. Leyla, tell us about this search because it was a complete surprise to everyone.

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. And today, a day later, we're starting to hear everyone sort of give their thoughts on that. The family, the Trump family speaking out. We'll let you hear from Eric in just a bit. But also here on the ground, I can tell you you're really starting to see that political divide. A lot of supporters coming out, and so, yes, I've heard multiple times Trump won as folks drive by. I've also heard people say, lock him up.

So, just behind Mar-a-Lago, which is right there, the primary residence of the former president, Donald Trump, you're starting to see protesters but overwhelming supporters who are coming out in reaction to the news, so, something that is clearly riling up his base.

In terms of the search warrant itself, the execution of the search warrant by the FBI, there are still a lot of questions that remain unanswered. We know from sources familiar with the investigation that former President Trump was not there when the search warrant was executed.

We know that they took some sort of documents and records because his attorney confirmed that. We also know that the law enforcement agents that were in there were really focused on his offices as well as the private quarters. But still a lot left unknown as to exactly what they were searching for and exactly what they left with. We know they left with boxes, but what was in those boxes will have to wait to find out.

That said, the safe, we heard President Trump mention that in his statement that he released when he announced the search itself, and here's what his son had to say last night.


ERIC TRUMP, SON OF FORMER PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They'll probably find a note from me telling me how proud I am of him and what a great job he is doing as president. They might find some pictures of my kids, maybe some nice headlines, maybe a nice note from you, Sean.

This is banana republic antics. Having a home of the 45th president of the United States raided by FBI agents, safes broken up. This is not who we are as a democracy.


SANTIAGO: As for the Department of Justice staying tight-lipped, as you might imagine, as you might expect, saying no comment on this, this morning. Poppy, Alex?

MARQUARDT: Yes. Probably fair to say that the FBI was not looking for a nice note from Sean Hannity. Leyla Santiago in Palm Beach, thank you very much.

HARLOW: Joining us now, CNN Chief White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins, Elie Honig, former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, also joining us, Harry Litman, former U.S. attorney and deputy assistant A.G., and CNN Political Director David Chalian.

All right, Kaitlan, 24 hours ago, did not expect to be covering this news. But not only did this surprising event happen, you have some really critical reporting on what happened in June two months prior to this at Mar-a-Lago.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and that reporting is only raising more questions about what happened between a meeting that happened at Mar-a-Lago earlier this year and, of course, this search warrant that was executed yesterday.

And what we were told by multiple sources is that several months ago, a handful of federal investigators went to Mar-a-Lago, sat down with some of Trump's attorneys and were talking to them about these documents.

And the former president actually was on the property at the time. We were told that he stopped by the meeting. He greeted the investigators but did not stay and did not answer questions. Then after that, these attorneys showed the investigators where the documents are being stored at Mar-a-Lago, which I'm told was in a room in the basement, and I'm told that days later, they got a letter from the investigators asking them to further secure the room, which they then put a padlock on the door of this room.

Now, what exactly was inside that room, what the documents were, we don't know yet. That is something that the investigators we are told did look around the room, but it's still unclear exactly what that was. But there are now major questions being prompted, of course, of what happened and what changed between when they received that letter from investigators asking them to further secure these documents and, of course, this warrant being executed yesterday to go and retrieve documents clearly based on what we've seen now.


MARQUARDT: Elie, can you try to answer that question from Kaitlan? What would have caused this huge escalation between June and now between that cordial meeting, as far as we understand it, and this incredible search by the FBI yesterday?

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Sure, Alex. So, I think it's reasonable to assume are from Kaitlan's reporting that something went haywire, something went wrong between June and yesterday, and here's why. If you are a prosecutor and you ask the person who you want to search, hey, those are the documents we want, please hold them there, please padlock the room and you believed that they were actually doing that without messing with the documents in any way, interfering with them, destroying them. If you believe they were holding them safely, you typically would not go and get a search warrant. You would just hand them a subpoena, which is a piece of paper that says, you are hereby ordered to give me those documents. It's a much less painful, much less invasive of privacy way to get those documents.

So, the fact that DOJ went through the trouble of writing up their probable cause, bringing it to a judge and then sending armed agents in to seize these documents tells me that something wrong that DOJ did not believe those documents were being maintained.

HARLOW: Harry Litman, can you explain to folks what FBI agents, what prosecutors have to go through in order to get a judge to grant a search warrant, especially on a residence of a former president?

HARRY LITMAN, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY AND FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT A.G.: Right, and underscore, especially. The standard process is already rigorous enough. You go to that magistrate usually and say, here's what's going on. There's a very detailed affidavit here. It would have been looked at with a fine tooth comb. It would have included the detail of the meeting. It probably would have included this additional detail. Some of what they took back with them showed mutilated records, which is one of the offenses under the crime, and also showed very valuable records.

So, they would have gone to that magistrate. Everyone would have been acutely aware of the historical situation that magistrate would have signed off, and they would have decided, look, we need the element of surprise here, the phalanx of 12 FBI agents showing up in the morning because we can't trust that this guy, who, by the way just yesterday, was revealed to be, you know, flushing documents down the toilet, is going to actually preserve them or turn them over in a cooperative way since now months have elapsed and they haven't done so.

MARQUARDT: David Chalian, we've seen two instances now where the Biden White House has been announcing major victories. The last one was when Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed and then we were slightly distracted by Speaker Pelosi going to Taiwan. Now, we have him today about to sign the CHIPS Act. He is celebrating the Inflation Reduction Act, and now we have this news about the search. Is this earth- shattering news stepping on the White House's political win?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: I Mean, I think the White House, when you talk to aides there, are pretty confident that they're going to be able to sell some of these victories that they've just racked up here, these legislative victories, some bipartisan, some purely with Democratic votes in trying to get some big ticket items done on the president's agenda, take that out to the public this fall and try to rally Democrats around those successes in advance of the midterms.

I have to say, though, I'm not sure that having Donald Trump's home raided is necessarily a bad thing politically for Democrats too. It sort of puts Donald Trump back into the center of action. And he is a unifying force among Democrats. It gives them a point of opposition to rally around, may motivate some Democrats to show up.

Which is why I think one of the big questions out of this news is sort of what does this mean for Donald Trump's political calculations of this short-term moment. We see him utilizing the raid as a way to immediately raise money, juice energy inside his base. That statement he put out yesterday, I mean, that was completely crafted as a base rallying statement, this notion that the state is persecuting him and raiding his home and coming in. This is the stuff that fuels up the Trump MAGA base of American politics, and he knows that. And so he's tapping into it, puts out a video, puts out a fundraising appeal.

Big question, will this now impact his thinking at all about this 2024 presidential run that he's very publicly flirting with in terms of the timing of when that announcement potentially may come.


And, again, I just think this moment could work for Donald Trump politically. It also can work for the Democrats politically because they have found themselves motivated when he is injected into the center of the political conversation. HARLOW: I do, Kaitlan, want to be clear for our viewers, though, and really distinguish sort of the legal lines here and the way that DOJ operates and especially an attorney general like Merrick Garland and the politics of it. And, you know, all the legal analysts, all the former DOJ folks we've talked to in the last 24 hours have all said this would have had to go to Garland. This would have had to go all the way up because of the politically sensitive nature.

Can you just clarify for everyone what the White House knew and didn't know, the Biden White House, about this raid? Because Alice Stewart was on last hour saying, we need to know what they knew, when. I mean, there's a very clear and important answer to that, is there not?

COLLINS: It's an important question and I think it's understandable why people want to know what the White House is aware of, the Biden White House is aware of when it comes to the search warrant that was executed. We were told by senior officials that President Biden was not aware that this search was going to happen, that this warrant had been granted and was going to be carried out at the former president's primary residence in Florida yesterday.

We're also told a lot of White House staffers were not aware. Of course, that's going to be a question that is posed to the White House today when there is President Biden in front of reporters as he's going to be momentarily or when there is a press briefing later on today to clear that up. But White House officials, we were told, found out, like the rest, of us when Trump had confirmed it in that statement, and as reporters were breaking this and reporting it out in real-time.

The Justice Department, I should note, has not commented on this at all. There have obviously been multiple requests. They themselves have not said that, yes, Attorney General Merrick Garland signed off on this. But you have heard from countless people who used to work in the Justice Department, senior Justice Department officials who have said something of this nature, so sensitive and of such grave importance is something that would have been brought to the attention of the attorney general. But we don't have that from him yet that, yes, he did sign off on this.

HARLOW: Right. But the White House saying, as you said, Kaitlan, they found out about this like everyone else did.

Don't go anywhere. Stay with us. There's a lot more for us to talk about. We're going to continue this conversation after a break.

MARQUARDT: And also ahead this hour, CNN has learned that former President Trump's former secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, he's going to be answering questions from the January 6th committee today, and he's not the only key witness that they're going to be hearing from.

HARLOW: And later, the Arctic ice melt has some famous billionaires funding a huge treasure hunt in Greenland. Our Rene Marsh explains why they're doing it and what they're hoping to find.


MARQUARDT: The FBI search at Mar-a-Lago of former President Trump's resort and home came just hours after The New York Times published photos which appeared to show the former president attempting to destroy documents by ripping them up and putting them in toilets.

HARLOW: Such an action might be in violation of the Presidential Records Act, which requires documents from each administration be saved and transferred to the National Archives.

Our Senior Crime and Justice Correspondent Katelyn Polantz joins us now. You know everything there is to know about this. And I get it, it might sound wonky to folks but it matters a lot, especially right now.

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: It really does, Poppy and Alex. So, the Presidential Records Act, that is an act that was passed by Congress. It's about document ownership. And it came into play after Watergate, because after Watergate, there was a need to make sure that it was clear that records after a president left office didn't belong to them as a private citizen, they belonged to the public. That's why the National Archives comes in after a presidency and takes control of records.

Now, the Presidential Records Act, that's what we're talking about, there's a lot of discussion in that here regarding this investigation, this collection of documents from Mar-a-Lago, but that may not be enough to prompt a criminal investigation and an FBI raid.

There may be other criminal statutes that are coming into play here because what we know about the Presidential Records Act during the Trump administration was lots of people complained about it. People sued over it, people tried to say -- including the National Archives, warning Trump and his administration, you might not be handling records appropriately, and at the end of the day, those lawsuits really didn't amount to much at all.

And even just recently last week, we saw the Justice Department sue Peter Navarro to try and take control of White House records that they believe he still has. So, that didn't apparently prompt a criminal investigation there.

What does prompt a criminal investigation and where we appear to be now is that this could be about the handling of classified documents. That is something there are criminal statutes around. There also are criminal statutes around the destruction or the removal of federal records in an improper way.

So, it's possible that is what's being investigated now. But at this point in time, there are so many questions here. We don't know how far along this investigation is. We don't know who necessarily the targets would be. We don't know how much negotiating has happened behind the scenes between the Trump legal team and the Justice Department, even though we know they talked in June. And, finally, Poppy, as you know, specializing in law, that there is a question here of intent. We don't know what the feds know about what was intended to happen to these documents that were removed from Mar-a-Lago.

MARQUARDT: A big question of to what extent this may disqualify President Trump from seeking future office. Katelyn Polantz in Washington, thank you so much for breaking that down.

HARLOW: Katelyn, thanks. So, let's bring back our panel of experts. Elie, let's jump to that because this fascinates me. So, Katelyn was talking about the criminal statute that says, look, you're disqualified from office if you're charged and found guilty with destroying these documents, removing them, mutilating them, et cetera. That's 18 USC Code 271.


But it's not that clear because it's never been constitutionally challenged, so this would ostensibly go all the way up to the Supreme Court. And the question would be, well, the founders didn't write that when they said what you need to be president, right? I mean, they could challenge this. They would.

HONIG: Right, Poppy. So, one of the criminal laws that could be in play here makes it a crime to destroy or conceal federal documents. That's punishable by a maximum of three years in prison. But, also, it's the very rare federal law that says if you're convicted and if you're the custodian of the documents, meaning you're the person responsible for taking care of those documents, then you will be disqualified, barred from holding future office, but if that were ever to come into play, we're many steps removed from that.

But if that were to come into play, the response whoever is charged with that would say that's unconstitutional because the Constitution itself gives us the strictures on who can be president. You have to be 35 years old, residency requirement, natural born citizen, that kind of thing. And the argument would be it's unconstitutional for Congress to pass a law that adds onto that.

And you're exactly right, we've never grappled with this issue, I think, for obvious reasons. And if this statute ever were to be charged, you can bet that whoever gets charged with it would challenge it and it very likely would end up at the Supreme Court.

MARQUARDT: Harry, in the wake of this extraordinary search, we have not heard from the White House except to say that they didn't know about it. We have not heard from DOJ. We have not heard from the FBI. And so in this vacuum, you've seen a lot of Republican anger pouring in. If you were at the DOJ, what would you be advising in terms of communications, what they should be telling the American people in terms of perhaps clarifying what they were looking for yesterday?

LITMAN: Exactly what they're doing. I know there's a great temptation, but once you start down that road, there's no stopping. They've done it exactly right. There's really no doubt from the initial understanding with the White House that Garland wouldn't have had this happen. Not only that, it was a very, very, very small team at DOJ and FBI that even knew about it. And it's remarkable that nobody leaked. One quick point on the important disqualification idea, it has gone to the Supreme Court. There's an important case involving Adam Clayton Powell in the late 60s where the court did basically say you can't add to the qualifications. That would be the concrete shadow that would be cast by any attempt to trigger the disqualification provision.

HARLOW: That's fascinating that the court has ruled on that statute. I had no idea.

LITMAN: And, I'm sorry, in the context of a Congress member.


LITMAN: But the same idea.

HARLOW: Okay, you're right. I mean, you make a good point. It says any office under the United States. So, ostensibly, that will go all the way up.

Kaitlan Collins, to you, where do you think this goes? I mean, now, we don't know what investigators, how long it's going to take for them to present anything, whether there will be any charges filed, but this just seemed to change so much politically, especially 90 days before the midterms and with President Trump flirting with another run.

COLLINS: And you're obviously getting the sense that he is going to try to use this to his political advantage, because you've already seen the lengthy statement that he put out last night talking about how he believes this is politically motivated. You've seen the comments from his family members, Eric Trump, Lara Trump saying that they believe this is going to help fuel him if he does decide to run and basically put wind in his sails to use that. He's already fundraising off of it. I'm getting texts from his campaign already saying Mar-a-Lago was raided. Please donate to X, Y, Z, various political committees.

So, you're already seeing the way that they're using this from a political perspective. Where it goes legally, of course, remains to be seen. Because I even think people in Trump's orbit were surprised at the escalation here, and so it's raised questions about what exactly they're pursuing. And if there's something that we just don't know about yet here, then maybe that obviously investigators know, we do not given they are not commenting.

I will say that when you speak to the former president's staff and those who worked with him in the west wing, they say he was famous for mishandling information when it came to documents that you were supposed to treat in a certain manner. Stephanie Grisham last night on CNN saying that she often watched him either throw documents away, rip them up, put some of them in his pocket.

And so it's not like they're saying, oh, he never mishandled documents or he handled classified information properly, that's the big question I think that is also adding to that complication of what was at Mar-a- Lago when this search was conducted, what they found and what they took with them, and, of course, where it goes from here. MARQUARDT: And, David, before we even get to 2024 and a potential Trump candidacy, we've, of course, got the midterms coming up. Among the many Republican responses that we've seen from South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, he said this close to an election is beyond problematic.

You were indicating before the break that Democrats could seize on this as well. How much do you think that this search is going to be a midterm issue for both Democrats and Republicans?


CHALIAN: I don't know that this specific incident, Alex, is going to be an issue, but I know that Donald Trump is going to be an issue and, of course, all sort of things related to that in this midterm, because of this idea, publicly flirting with this notion that he may announce again for president prior to the midterms, because of the January 6th committee's work, because of these ongoing investigations. So, this is a piece of that.

I would note too I think instantly with the search, you cited Lindsey Graham, but look at Kevin McCarthy's statement about threatening to investigate DOJ if Republicans do indeed take over, control the House of Representatives using their oversight authority to investigate DOJ on this search and seizure. There are a lot of Republicans who once again now face this test and they're, you know, quadrupling down here on aligning themselves with Trump's perspective on this not hanging back from leadership to other high profile potential 2024 competitors, like Ron DeSantis or Ted Cruz. These are folks who are all commenting on this in alignment with Trump's thinking on it, yet again showing that there is a desire among Republicans in today's Republican Party to still stay in lock step with him.

HARLOW: It was really interesting from DeSantis given his potential political aspirations for higher office in '24. Thank you very much.

MARQUARDT: So much more to discuss, but thanks to that super star panel, Kaitlan Collins, Elie Honig, Harry Litman and David Chalian., thank you.

HARLOW: Well, CNN has learned that former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will meet virtually with the January 6th committee today. What are they going to ask him is key, that's coming up.