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WSJ: FBI Recovered 11 Sets Of Classified Documents In Trump Search; DOJ Tells Court Trump Does Not Object To Unsealing Search Warrant. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired August 12, 2022 - 15:00   ET




VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: Top of the hour on CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Victor Blackwell.

3 pm deadline has now hit and we are waiting to see whether Donald Trump's attorneys have contested the release of the search warrant on his Mar-A-Lago estate executed on Monday. The former president said that he encourages the request by the Justice Department to unseal the warrant as well as the property receipt of what was taken, but it's still not clear what his attorneys will do.

Now we're learning much more though from The Wall Street Journal. It retrieved a reviewed rather inventory documents from the search and reported agents removed 11 sets of classified documents, including some marked top secret and meant only to be viewed in special government facilities. The Journal also said agents sought only to go through Trump's office and storage areas and not any rooms at Mar-A- Lago for guests.

Now, The Washington Post also reported the FBI was searching for classified documents relating to nuclear weapons. CNN's reporting shows that the search of Trump's home was the culmination of months of escalating tension between the former president and the Justice Department, which has been seeking sources, say, to retrieve records and papers that should have never left Washington.

CNN's Evan Perez and Katelyn Polantz are here.

Let's start with you, Katelyn. The details of this Wall Street Journal report, what are you learning?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Right, Victor. So we are looking through The Wall Street Journal reporting here that - where they are saying that they were reviewing documents that are included in this court filing or in this search warrant. And that search warrant would lay out what was seized out of Mar-A-Lago.

It would have the receipts of what was taken, that receipt have been given to the president's legal team. And what the Journal says is that it's 11 boxes or sets of classified documents, including the highest classification level, some marked a top secret SCI, so that's Sensitive Compartmented Information. So that is really among the highest levels of classification in that system for National Security.

And we also know that that is one set of the documents TS SCI level. There are also three sets of confidential documents, three sets of secret documents and four sets of top secret documents. So those are the three different levels of classification that the U.S. government uses.

The Wall Street Journal report also says in total, there are 20 boxes that were removed from Mar-A-Lago and there - it includes things like binders of photos, the clemency grant for Roger Stone. Remember that adviser to the president who lied to Congress, he was pardoned, his sentence was commuted, he did not end up going to jail. And then there is also information about the President of France, apparently, that was taken out of Mar-A-Lago.

But it is 3:03 pm, we have not seen the filing come in officially into court and so we have not seen that search warrant be unsealed in the court record at this time.

BLACKWELL: Evan, let me come to you with this reporting from the Journal that some of these were at the very highest levels of classification, not only should they not be viewed by everyone, but they shouldn't really even be viewed outside of special facilities.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right, exactly. They have special rooms that these documents would be stored in. And in order to go read something like this, Victor, you're not allowed to bring cell phones in. Again, there's a lot of protocols to get into this.

And it goes back to what The Washington Post reported, which is that among the documents that were in question, were some documents related to U.S. nuclear weapons programs. We had previously, as you know, reported that at least some of the documents that were being in dispute and what the government was trying to retrieve, that the FBI was trying to retrieve were documents related to Special Access Programs.

Now, again, these are programs - these are documents that even if you had top secret clearance, you would need additional clearance to be able to access documents like that.


These are not things that belong in a basement at someone's beach house in Palm Beach. This is the kind of thing that should never have left the U.S. government property, but somehow ended up on a truck to Mar-A-Lago at the end of the Trump presidency, Victor.

BLACKWELL: There's also - look, the former president is posting lies on his social media platform ...


BLACKWELL: ... and the National Archives has now weighed in. Explain what we're hearing from them. PEREZ: Well, the National Archives has had to respond because the

former president and some of his allies on the right - on right-wing media have been making a claim that, well, Obama did it, too. And what they're saying is that, at the end of the former President Obama's term, he took documents that according to some of them, these postings and some of these claims, he was supposed to have put online and never did. And, again, the former president is claiming that they were classified.

The National Archives is pushing back on that saying that that's not true. One of the things they're pointing out is at the end of the Obama presidency, there were a lot of documents. Most of these documents were actually electronic, but there were some hard paper that were transferred by NARA to a facility in Chicago, which is where President Obama is building his presidential library.

So this is where - this is fully within the control of the National Archives, according to the National Archives. Not true that Obama took documents with him to Chicago. First of all, he lives here in Washington mostly, so it's not the same - it's not even close to the same issue that we have right now.

BLACKWELL: Yes. They're not in some box in a ...

PEREZ: They're not in box.

BLACKWELL: ... basement on the Southside of Chicago.

PEREZ: Right, exactly.

BLACKWELL: Evan Perez ...

PEREZ: And right ...

BLACKWELL: ... go ahead.

PEREZ: ... there's no criminal investigation that is attached to it unlike the one that it is now.

BLACKWELL: All right. Evan Perez, Katelyn Polantz, standby. We'll bring you back if you got new reporting. Let's bring in now Senior Legal Analyst Elie Honig; former federal prosecutor, CNN Legal Analyst, Ambassador Norm Eisen served as the ethics czar in the Obama administration; and house judiciary counsel in Donald Trump's first impeachment trial and Caroline Polisi is a criminal defense attorney and lecturer at Columbia School of Law.

Elie, starting with you first, this Wall Street Journal reporting, 11 sets of classified documents. We'll get to the other elements a little later, but that some of them, one set was at the very top of the pyramid of classification justifies going in with a search warrant to bring those back to the federal government.

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, this is the biggest take away from The Wall Street Journal's reporting that, yes, there were indeed classified documents recovered by the FBI inside Mar-A-Lago, and not just classified documents because there's really four different layers, but the top layer, top secret SCI were recovered from inside Mar-A-Lago. That's enormously important to know.

And if people are saying, well, why was it necessary to go in by search warrant? I think this will be a big part of DOJ as answer. Now, important to note, Victor, according to the reporting, there's no further detail. It doesn't say classified documents relating to whatever country, whatever program, including there's no specification either way as to whether any of this relates to our nuclear programs. You wouldn't expect this document to specify that, so we still don't know about that piece of reporting.

BLACKWELL: Mr. Ambassador, let me come to you and this is what the former president says that, number one - and let's take these in two separate parts. Number one, it was all declassified. The idea that there would be a declassification of the very top of the pyramid of these documents that were found at Mar-A-Lago and no record, no evidence thus far of that, is that plausible?

NORM EISEN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: No, Victor, it's not plausible. I had TS SCI clearance when I was serving as a diplomat. And they're incredibly detailed procedures that you have to go through in handling those documents, including in their declassification. If the post reporting is correct, that there were nuclear secrets among the most dangerous and important ones our country holds, that were being kept at Mar-A-Lago that has additional declassification procedures, it has to go through multiple entities.

The president can't just - any president can't just wave a wand as they're leaving the Oval Office and declassify, like so much that Donald Trump has said over the years, it just defies belief.

BLACKWELL: Caroline, let me take number two hear the response from the former president. He says they didn't need to seize anything, they could have had it at anytime they wanted without playing politics and breaking into Mar-A-Lago, his phrasing here.


Let's just start here, they should not have been at Mar-A-Lago in the first place, there would be no need to come and ask for them if they'd been where they belonged.

CAROLINE POLISI, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Absolutely, Victor. And Merrick Garland, in no uncertain terms, laid it out quite clearly for the American public yesterday during his statement in which he sort of noted the timeline. All the reporting thus far indicates that there was a robust back and forth between Team Trump and the DOJ.

In fact, there was a subpoena issued in June and apparently they didn't turn over all of the documents. Merrick Garland said specifically, which is true, that DOJ tries to take narrowly tailored means to accomplish its goals and that this was required at this point in time.

Clearly, they felt, well, if they asked for the information, they asked for the documents, they were not turned over, then they received information that there was more there. This was their only option. So it's obviously president - former President Trump is going to say that, but I think pretty clearly based on the reporting we've heard and what Merrick Garland has said, it's just not the case.

BLACKWELL: Elie, what are you learning about from this Wall Street Journal reporting? What does it tell us about the breadth of the search?

HONIG: Yes. So the Justice Department and FBI requested permission to search quite broadly from - within Mar-A-Lago. It essentially says any of the office areas of Mar-A-Lago, not the residential area - not the private residential areas that renters might rent. One thing we're watching for is, is this going to be more specific, did DOJ go to a judge and say, we want to go into this specific room, we want to go into the basement, we want to go into the safe. None of that is in this document.

Now, that can mean one or two things, that could mean DOJ didn't know specifically until they went in. They had certain areas that they thought broadly and others they thought broadly might not contain these documents.

The other thing that could be happening here is DOJ could be intentionally general and vague in the way they phrase this because they may not want to reveal or expose or out anyone who's feeding them information on the inside. I will say the way this is phrased, this warrant, the scope of the search is absolutely normal and routine. It's the way you would expect to see almost any warrant phrase. Essentially it says any room or area where it's likely we will find documents.

BLACKWELL: Yes. In addition, we've talked about the former President having these documents, Mr. Ambassador. But I don't imagine that President Trump carried these 11 boxes or these 11 sets, 20 boxes of items to the wine cellar or the basement, wherever they were. There are the other people who work there who might have had some access to these documents and as you suggested, very likely didn't have the clearances to see most of it, if any of it.

EISEN: That's right. These documents are supposed to be so stored in what we call a SCIF. Actually, when I was an ambassador, my office was a SCIF, a Secure compartmentalized information facility where you're not allowed to bring in your cell phones, there's a variety of rules on who can enter and how they can enter. And then within the SCIF, you'll often have a safe for the most sensitive documents.

And we know that these documents were not secured that way, because one of the things the government said to Mr. Trump and his team was you have to put a lock on that room. And we know the government is interested in these issues, Victor, because they've also subpoenaed the surveillance tape of who was coming and going. And of course, we know a foreign national was arrested for attempting to enter Mar-A- Lago some time back.

So the more we learn, the worse it gets the danger to our national security based on what we're hearing concerning these documents.

BLACKWELL: Caroline, no indication that the former president's attorneys are objecting to the release, what will you be looking for in these documents?

POLISI: Well, absolutely. And Elie has said it before, there is - we know what we're going to expect here, we're going to get not only what they were looking for, but what they retrieved, right, the inventory. Now, unfortunately for us and journalists and just regular citizens, because of the nature of this information, we won't know exactly specifically what the types of documents are related to and that, unfortunately, will go to the former President Trump's sort of defense in the court of public opinion.

He's already kind of being, let's say, fair about this saying, yes, maybe there are confidential documents, but it wasn't that big of a deal. Unfortunately, in order to rebut that assertion, we don't know exactly what's in the documents, because they're top secret. So the nature of the information I don't think we're going to see nor are we going to see the affidavit which describes the probable cause under which the DOJ went to get this search warrant to a magistrate in order to search Mar-A-Lago.


So there will be key pieces of information missing.

BLACKWELL: Caroline, Elie, Ambassador Eisen, stay with us because we're getting new details on the search. We'll have those details for you on the other side of this break.



BLACKWELL: All right. New information on the search, back with me now, Katelyn Polantz. Katelyn, what are you learning?

POLANTZ: Just a few minutes ago, Victor, we did get notice from the U.S. government that Donald Trump does not object making public these underlying documents that precipitated this unprecedented surge at Mar-A-Lago on Monday to try and get back classified information into the federal government's hands that had been taken to that home of the former president after his presidency or during and kept there.


So what we know now is it is just a one page filing. It is very succinct, it says that the lawyers for Donald Trump right now have informed the Justice Department that these documents, this search warrant, the receipt of what was seized from Mar-A-Lago, that those could be unsealed.

So now at this point in time, we are just waiting for the judge to step in and to order the release. It could come imminently. The release of this record could come imminently, especially because both sides here are in agreement, the Justice Department and Donald Trump. There is no expectation of privacy now, at this time, because they want this information out there.

And just a reminder that we are understanding based on some Wall Street Journal reporting already that there are 11 boxes or 11 sets of classified records that were seized from Mar-A-Lago that really upped the ante in what was happening here and what was taken out of the former president's home.

BLACKWELL: All right. Katelyn Polantz with the breaking news. I'll let you get back to reporting.

Let's bring back Elie Honig who is our CNN Senior Legal Analyst. We have with us Caroline Polisi and Ambassador Norm Eisen.

First, your thoughts on the decision from the Trump team not to object here?

HONIG: Well, we have a rarity. We have the United States Justice Department agreeing with Donald Trump. They both say go ahead, judge, and release them. Notable, of course, that Merrick Garland forced Donald Trump's hand, because let's remember, Donald Trump himself could have released this ever since Monday.

BLACKWELL: Monday night.

HONIG: Right, when the surge happened. So Merrick Garland clearly upped the ante last night and Donald Trump has now agreed. So as Katelyn said, it's now up to the judge. In theory, the judge could say I disagree with both of you. I'm not going to unseal that is highly unlikely. I think it's very, very likely what we'll see next and it could be at any moment is the judge says, motion granted, here's the documents, they're unsealed, they're available to the public.

BLACKWELL: And, Elie, let me stay with you on this. The - what we're going to see in this document, I know you have been looking forward to the statutes, the specific statutes that are relevant here, explain why.

HONIG: Yes. So there should be in this document a listing of what statutes the DOJ believes it has probable cause to show Donald Trump violated and a judge agreed. Now, that is telling because it will tell you what the gist of this investigation is and - but it's important to note, all you need here is probable cause that is way short of beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the proof that you would need to ultimately prove to a jury at trial. It's a one sided proceeding at this point, DOJ gets to write up the evidence on their own, you bring it to a judge who reviews it, there's no input from the defense side.

So we can't conclude for sure that Donald Trump is guilty of these things, for sure. All we know is that these are the topics, the subject of the investigation.

BLACKWELL: Yes. We're standing by for the posting of these documents that are related, of course, to the warrant that was served on Mar-A- Lago on Monday. Let me go to Caroline Polisi. Specifically, on the decision not to

object to this, is that what you expected?

POLISI: It could have gone either way. Team Trump is known to object when they can, so I think they saw that they would have a losing argument and didn't want to sort of waste the ink on this trivial issue. But it is surprising that they chose not to object in an instance in which they could.

I would just note that the way - the timing of this is interesting and that team Trump got a prebuttal in, in that statement that Trump released on his social media account, noting, well, it was - wasn't classified anyway, and sort of laying out his anticipated arguments.

They've done it in such a way and everybody has been noting, from the get go they could have made this information public, but they withheld it. And they forced Merrick Garland to come out and do this type of situation so that he could get the prebuttal in. So he's sort of priming the American public for his defenses here.

BLACKWELL: So there has been a flood of reporting on what was seized from the former president's home. We've got a reporting from the Wall Street Journal that as, Katelyn mentioned, the 11 sets of classified documents including some at the very top. One set of this - the top secret SCI documents, four sets of top secret documents, three sets of secret documents and three sets of confidential documents.

We also have Joshua Skule, former FBI Executive Assistant Director for Intelligence. The reporting from The Washington Post that in January signal intelligence material was also seized. Explain what that is, signal intelligence material.

JOSHUA SKULE, FORMER FBI EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT DIRECTOR FOR INTELLIGENCE: Yes, Victor. Signals intelligence is collection of intercepted electronic communications. It could be telephone calls, could be cyber, could be emails.


It really is a broad range of communications that could be in there.

BLACKWELL: Ambassador Eisen, you said that this decision by the Attorney General to essentially call Donald Trump's bluff, that if you say that this was egregious, here everyone can look at it and now there's no objection. Your reaction to the decision by the Trump team?

EISEN: Well, I think Merrick Garland really did a judo flip on Donald Trump and his allies. And some of those allies, one of the most disturbing aspects of this has been to see the mainstream of the Republican Party line up behind the President's tweet this week, they're going to have egg on their face when we get these documents. And as we expect, there'll be some of the statutes where there's a showing of probable cause of crime.

And what the attorney general did was put Donald Trump in a bind. If he objects, then he looks like he's hiding, it makes it look bad for him. If he agrees, you get this information out into the public. And even though we won't have the mother lode, the affidavit supporting the search warrant, the attachments, we will have some detail and we'll have an inventory that we'll see if it confirms the reporting on these 11 sets of classified documents.

So the more the details come out, the worse for Trump and the AG has effectively forced Trump's hand.

BLACKWELL: Josh, where in this hierarchy and maybe we can put it up on the screen, there are several levels of classification here, again, very at the top of this pyramid that top secret SCI, does this nuclear weapon information, again, it's not clear if this relates to the United States assets or the assets of a foreign state, but nuclear weapons according to The Washington Post, documents related to those. Where do those fall in here?

SKULE: So those would fall - nuclear falls in the very top echelon of classified information and that would most likely be in the SCI realm. And then also understand in the SCI realm, there are other aspects to that, which have programs for which people are read into nuclear access to nuclear material will be one of those programs.

So these could be code worded documents as well, which provide an additional level of protection. And frankly, some of those programs are very selective in the number of people that can be read on to them.

BLACKWELL: Can I ask you a really parochial question here? We're speaking about these groups of information, 11 sets of classified documents, I find myself making the mistake saying 11 boxes. But when we're talking about a set of classified documents, could a set be something as simple as a folder or as much as a box help? Help us understand quantity here.

SKULE: Well, Victor, I don't know who came up with the sets of documents. I don't think that that was - and so it could be two documents. It could be a pair of documents from the presidential daily brief. It could be another more thorough document that came from a particular intelligence organization. It's varied. There's no way to determine the volume at this juncture.

BLACKWELL: Okay. All right. Listen, we're getting more in and, of course, we want to help you understand it, So Elie Honig, Ambassador Eisen, Caroline Polisi and Joshua Skule, standby. We're going to take another quick break and we have more on the documents related to the search of Mar-A-Lago.