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DOJ Releases Redacted FBI Affidavit For Mar-A-Lago Search. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired August 26, 2022 - 12:30   ET



ABBY PHILLIP, CNN HOST: Jessica, you've been going through this document as it's just come out moments ago. What are you learning from your initial read of it?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Evan touched on a lot of it as well. I mean, you know, we're getting a lot of information here. You know, just to show viewers at home what this is like. I mean, the first few pages of this actually do have a lot of information. However, it's the back half that's significantly blacked out. We're going through that.

And at the end of this, we're also seeing a letter that was sent from counsel for the former president, Evan Corcoran, who's been significantly involved in this entire investigation in the back and forth with the National Archives, as well as Jay Bratt. He's the chief of the counterintelligence and Export Control Services at DOJ. He's been at the forefront of this investigation. And it talks about in this May 25th letter. I'll just read a little bit for you.

I mean, it says, Dear Jay, public trust in the government is low. And at such times adherence to the rules of long standing policies is essential, and it talks about Trump's political power in the Republican Party. And it's really pushing back against the DOJ and this entire investigation. You know, we know from this affidavit that the FBI investigation began in February of 2022.

This letter to Jay Bratt happening in May 2022, just a few months later, and really pushing back, there are bullet points here. I'll read the few bullet points. It says the president has the absolute authority to declassify documents. This is an argument that Trump's team has repeatedly made, that he had a standing order to declassify documents that has been disputed in many realms.

In fact, our Jamie Gangel talking to more than a dozen former Trump officials disputing that there could be a quote, standing order to declassify. President Trump's attorney saying that any presidential actions involving classified documents are not subject to criminal sanction that they were making that argument but obviously this criminal investigation continued nonetheless. It's claiming the DOJ is under political influence here.

Again, that's another argument that we've seen Trump's team repeatedly make, even though the Attorney General has said that they would, there would not be any political influence that they would follow the facts and the law. And then it says DOJ must be candid with judges and present exculpatory evidence. So this was Trump team pushing back on the DOJ in May 2022, several months before that search warrant was executed at Mar-a-Lago.

So we're still going through this document, but there's a lot to be gleaned here in particular how Trump's team was reacting to discontinue the investigation. They're pushed back just before several months before the search warrant was actually executed. Abby?

PHILLIP: Jessica, that's extraordinary information, what you just read for us. But let's go back to Katelyn Polantz who has more about what is in this document that explains how this investigation came to be in the first place. Katelyn?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Abby, there's quite a bit unsealed at the beginning that refers to how this came about, right? We have known a little bit that the National Archives for a year essentially after Trump left office kept asking them. We need to get these boxes back. We know you have them, you know you have them, we need to get two dozen boxes out of your presence and back into the hands of the federal government. And then this year, January is when 15 boxes were finally transferred. This affidavit says that at the beginning of February, that is when this became a criminal investigation.

And the reason it became a criminal investigation was what the National Archives found within those boxes. So I want to read a little bit from this itself, because it's actually much more than we knew before. So the National Archives referred this to the Justice Department. And they also, we're noting that in their preliminary review these boxes, these 15 boxes that Trump had for a year contained newspapers, magazines, printed news articles, photos, miscellaneous printout, notes, presidential correspondence, personal, and post presidential records, and, quote unquote, a lot of classified records.

And then the Justice Department writes, of most significant concern was that highly classified records were unfolded intermixed with other records, and otherwise on properly identified. And we know from the reporting so far on this, that the records that were contained in some of those boxes were so highly sensitive, that they really didn't need to be catalogued appropriately, that they needed to be kept in specific areas that it would be documented who would even have access or looking at them at any given time.

So that really is how this started. The National Archives was involved. The National Archives Inspector General was involved and they got the Justice Department involved pretty quickly, several months ago this year.

PHILLIP: The substance of what was found in Mar-a-Lago, a lot of classified documents to quote this affidavit. But also how it was stored intermixed with other documents that were not classified that were personal in nature. That's the key part there. Katelyn, standby for us for just a moment, let's go to Evan. Evan, on page 17 of the affidavit, there is a paragraph that you say jumped out to you.


EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. So on page 17, paragraph 47. That it describes that the FBI agents who reviewed the initial 15 boxes of documents that were retrieved and taken back to the National Archives in January of this year, and it describes that a preliminary look at the documents found 184, unique documents, bearing classification markings, that's a lot of documents. These are documents that according to the FBI, would have ranged from everything from confidential, to top secret that talks about six to seven documents marked confidential, 92 marked as secret and 25 documents marked as top secret.

There's also a reference to some of the various compartments, you know, we've seen before the idea that there are documents that were labeled TS SCI, which is Sensitive Compartmented Information, this is stuff that, you know, you've got to have special clearance to be able to see. And it refers to documents that are marked as HCS, which is a reference to human intelligence sources. These are the types of sources that the CIA, for instance, which controls a lot of these types of documents.

They, you know, are receiving information from human sources, they're spies, essentially. And this stuff is closely guarded by the U.S. government. And the question is, how the heck did this end up in boxes that were being kept in an unsecure environment at Mar-a-Lago? That's the big question. The reference here is to HCS as a reference to FISA documents, and also documents marked NOFORN which is no foreign, which basically, is stuff that is denied for anybody who is a foreign national.

This is, again, these are documents that are so sensitive that, you know, there's a tight control over who gets to see them. No foreign nationals is supposed to be able to see them. Again, how did this end up in these boxes of documents that were retrieved from our logo in January?

PHILLIP: A truly extraordinary stuff. Evan, continue to stand by for us, you and all of our reporters are poring through this document, which provides a lot of significant new information about what led to the search of Mar-a-Lago. We're going to come back into the room here with our experts, Carrie Cordero and Elliot Williams. Carrie, I have to say this -- they put stuff in this document that is significant, that is new. And what Evan just reported that there were documents found, to quote the document a lot of classified documents that contain information about human sources, HCS, FISA, and other documents in Mar-a-Lago, in the same paragraph that Evan was just referring to, they talk about how some of the documents also contain handwritten notes from the President, the former president, then President Trump, former President Trump himself.

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, yes, so this paragraph 47 contains the information that demonstrates why the FBI had an investigative obligation to go in and make sure that there was no more classified information and remove any additional information that was at Mar-a-Lago. And this included the 15 boxes they reviewed that had been there, included 25 documents marked as top secret, 92 documents marked as secret.

Just to give our viewers a sense, when I used to work at the Justice Department, the National Security Division and handled documents that are at the secret level, or at the top secret level, we work in what's called a skiff, which is like a secure vault, a secure room that certain people only who have clearance have access to. Then within those rooms, we keep these kinds of documents in locked safes. And every night before you go home from work, you have to handle the documents, put them in the safe, lock the safe, the entire room becomes secure.

There are huge amounts of procedures and protocols that will get are involved in keeping these kinds of documents from inadvertent exposure. And what this document lays out is that the FBI agent who testified to this document said that he had no information indicating that Mar-a-Lago had been approved as a secure facility. And so these documents were not authorized to be there. And so they had an obligation to make sure that National Defense Information was protected.

PHILLIP: Not only was Mar-a-Lago not authorized. But the document also says that I do not believe any spaces within the premises have been authorized for storage and that there were not individuals authorized to be handling this material. Standby for just a moment, Elliot, I want to go to Steve Hall. He's the former CIA, Moscow station chief. Steve, a lot of information here about the concerns, the heightened level of concern about the types of documents that were being stored at the former president's home, what do you make of what has been revealed so far?


STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, Abby, the first thing that struck me as I was trying to go through this, like everybody else is the use of the HCS, secret classification, that's human information. That's basically information from human spies. So the TSSE stuff is usually technical types of types of capabilities that the U.S. government have, which is bad enough, because if the technical information gets out there, then of course, our adversaries outside the United States will have a better idea as to how we collect that technically.

But the HCS stuff basically means that there's information in those boxes in the basement at Mar-a-Lago that pertain to or possibly came from human sources, human spies. And while it's bad to have a technical capability dry up on you, in the case of human sources, they usually get imprisoned. And if it's in a place like Russia or any other authoritarian society, they're oftentimes simply executed. That type of information is just incredibly sensitive. As a former CIA guy, it sends, chills up and down my spine -- in my spine, when I hear that there's HCS information in somebody's basement in not secured as a properly should. It's just --it's really, really bad.

PHILLIP: Yes, it's really extraordinary thing. There's also information in this affidavit that indicates that the Trump team was making a lot of very broad claims about why they should not return these documents to the government.

HALL: Yes, that's always been a big question for me, Abby. It's been, you know, there's a lot of law stuff, there's a lot of legal questions that are going around and quite rightfully so I will certainly defer to CNN's legal analysts on that. But for me, the big thing that's missing is, you know, what is the innocent narrative here? In other words, what is a good explanation for why really anybody but certainly former president included in that group would want this stuff or have this stuff, you know, stored in the basement?

There's -- I can't come up with a good answer. If the answer is well, he just, you know, missed it. And when people were throwing stuff in boxes, that doesn't seem to be a very professional way to go about it certainly not a good way to protect classified information. And if the answer is something darker, like I want to hold it in reserve, or I want to bargain with it. I mean, that's horrible, too. We just don't know. But the bottom line for me is I can't think of a good reason that everybody says, yes, OK, I understand why the former president would take this incredibly classified information, home with him.

PHILLIP: We are all just asking that question. Steve Hall, just stand by for us. Let's bring in CNN's Pam Brown. Pam, there is a lot in this affidavit that really shows how extraordinary and unusual this case is, including that the FBI actually waited to look inside these boxes. They spent a lot of time going back and forth with the Trump team on this, what do you know?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: They did, and as someone who has covered the Justice Department for many years, what stands out to me is that gap in time, it was the criminal referral in February, it says that launched this investigation from the FBI. But it wasn't until three months later, in May, that the FBI did a preliminary review, according to page 17 of this redacted affidavit.

And what it seems like from reading through this is that that is when this investigation really escalated, because when they looked through these 15 boxes, 14 of the 15, it says had classified information, some with some of the highest classification marks. So that clearly raised the alarm bells for the FBI, it then went to visit Mar-a-Lago in June. And then of course, the search warrant was executed not long after that over the summer.

But it also shows just how unusual this case is, right? I mean, the fact that it waited three months, it shows an extraordinary amount of deference for the former president. In a typical case, Abby, if the FBI were to get a referral like this from National Archives or someone else that there's all this classified information intermingled with newspaper clippings and personal records, with these high classification marks, the FBI would want to go right in, take a look at this material launch this investigation right away.

Instead, it took three months for it to start that preliminary review after opening the investigation that then led to a concern about three statutes potentially being violated including the Espionage Act, the concerned about national security. So it's interesting to note just the level from the level of deference initially to the level of alarm that escalated to once they saw what was in these boxes.

PHILLIP: Yes, it's a really good, an important point, Pam, because the argument that's being made by the former president and his allies is that this is all political that he is being targeted. And yet, the facts and the timeline show that they were given a lot of time, that they were given a lot of communication. And yet the documents were not returned. Pam, standby for us. CNN's Kaitlan Collins is back with us. Now, Caitlin, there is an interesting and notable letter at the end of this document. What is in this letter?


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. For people who are reading at home, it's an exhibit one. And it's a letter from Trump's attorney Evan Corcoran, who is still representing him right now to Jay Bratt. Jay Bratt is the lead Justice Department official on this case. He was there present the day of this search. He was the one who actually contacted Trump's attorney and asked him to that they -- announced that they were there, ask them to turn the cameras off and then asked, you know which attorneys were there on the ground to greet them.

So on May 25h, Jay Bratt gets a letter from Evan Corcoran. That is about a week before Jay Bratt and three other investigators actually went down to Mar-a-Lago, that is when they surveyed this room, the storage room where a lot of these documents were being kept apparently in a haphazard manner according to what we can see in this affidavit. And in this letter from Evan Corcoran to the top Justice Department official on this, he basically is going through the reasons for defending why Trump had these records at Mar-a-Lago and why he had not turned some of them over.

And he makes a few points. One is that they claim that the President has the absolute authority to declassify documents. That's a claim that you've seen Trump's allies making in recent days, though experts have said that it's -- that's not how it works, you actually have to go through a process. He says the Presidential actions involving classified documents are not subject to criminal sanction. He says that the Justice Department must be insulated from political influence arguing basically they couldn't do that if Trump is, you know, running for reelection.

And then it says DOJ must be candid with judges and present exculpatory evidence. This is the part that stands out where Evan Corcoran, this Trump attorney, is making this argument in a letter about a week before investigators visited Mar-a-Lago where he says that pursuant to a policy where the DOJ must present exculpatory evidence to a grand jury, we requested the DOJ provide this letter to any grand jury considering evidence in connection with this matter, or any grand jury asked to issue a subpoena for testimony or documents in connection with this matter.

That is a letter that was sent from Trump's attorneys, to the Justice Department officials on this case, about a week before those very same Justice Department officials went to Mar-a-Lago to see where these documents are being stored. I want to note one other thing is Evan was talking about what they found down there at Mar-a-Lago and the initial 15 boxes that were sent to the National Archives, Abby. They talked about how they were being kept.

And basically they say that of the most significant concern was that highly classified records were unfoldered, intermixed with other records, and otherwise unprofitably identified, basically arguing that a lot of them were not in the proper condition or storage and mixed up with other documents they say.

PHILLIP: That's right. It's a lot of it. A lot of this is about the carelessness. It seems that the Trump and his team had with some of these incredibly sensitive documents. Standby Kaitlan. CNN's Katelyn Polantz is now with us. Katelyn, the FBI in this affidavit says the classified materials were brought to what they called an unauthorized location, presumptively within Mar-a-Lago. What can you tell us about that?

POLANTZ: Well, Abby, when you look at this affidavit, there's essentially two parts of this investigation. The first part is those boxes that they got back, that the National Archives got back in January and we're quite alarmed by because there were classified records in them. And then there's the second part. The second part is about the belief that there were still classified documents, National Defense Information, presidential records that shouldn't be at Mar-a- Lago that were still there, even after that January return of records. And so that's the part that I want to focus on, on these 38 pages. There is a significant amount here in a section called there is probable cause to believe that documents containing classified national defense information and presidential records remain at the premises.

The Justice Department is explaining why they need to go in there to do that search to get back records that are unsecured, and one of the main points they make is that Mar-a-Lago after the presidency, at least beginning on January 20th. There was no secure location there authorized to hold classified documents. And they make that quite clear in this. They're saying that places like the residential suite, the pine hall, the 45 office, so the office of Donald Trump and other spaces are not places that you could keep highly sensitive Federal records after the presidency. And that is the reason why they needed to go back in there and that is what they outline to the judge.


Unfortunately, there are several pages here that are pretty redacted as to why they believed that there were still items there they needed to go and get. But they do outline that they needed to go back and search many of the spaces that Donald Trump would have been in after January, up until August this year.

PHILLIP: Thanks, Katelyn, for that. Evan Perez is still with us. Evan, so the affidavit says clearly that federal investigators believed that they could uncover evidence of obstruction at Mar-a-Lago, that is evidence that might hamper their investigation. PEREZ: Right, it makes reference to that. Unfortunately, a lot of that part of the document appears to be redacted. And really, you know, you get this -- I think we need to step back first and point out that this document would have been the one that they gave to the judge to authorize the search, right? So this is kind of a bit of a data document. We don't know what else they found, what other indications they found. But there was something that prompted them to believe that even after they went there in June and took away some classified information, they believed that there was something imminent, that could harm the investigation, something that would obstruct this investigation, and that there were additional documents, which of course, according to the receipt that they provided that day, tells us that they did find.

One of the interesting things about this is on in paragraph 61 of the document, if you go down there to page 22. You know, it talks about the fact that they know that they were classified -- there was classified information, but they cite the law that this investigation, one of the laws that is being used as reason for this investigation. This is the Statute 793, the Espionage Act. And the lawyer from the Justice Department, this is a presumably Jay Bratt saying that, you know, it doesn't matter if things are not classified. It just says that information related to the National Defense is being stored in these unsecure places. That's the reason why they're going there. Abby?

PHILLIP: Evan, thank you so much for that really extraordinary reporting. I'm going to bring it back into the room with Carrie here. So much in all of that incredible reporting but the FBI lays out in this document that one of the reasons they needed to do this was, A, the documents, they knew there were classified documents in there, but B, they couldn't be sure that they were stored properly. They were all over the place, intermixed in all kinds of other documents. And they write here that they wanted to identify any persons who may have removed or retain classified information without authorization from the president's residence.

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: OK, let's unpack what -- when we talk about what a top secret document is, that is a document that if released, could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security, that there were 25 of those documents that either could have been mixed in with others or by themselves, there simply is no reason why those ever had a place outside of the kind of facility that Carrie was talking about a little bit earlier, which is secured, maintained by a custodian locked and so on.

There were 92 documents and this is back from a paragraph 47, which Evan was talking about a moment ago, 47 documents identified as secret. Secret documents could cause serious harm to the national security, if they're -- if they were publicly disclosed. These are not accidental mishandling of documents, there had to have been some intent here, because based on how in order to get them out of the White House, and into an unsecure location. You know, I think it's just -- there's a lot of government terms of art in here. And it's just really important to step back and really pay attention to what we're talking about when we talk about kinds of things. PHILLIP: A lot of government terms of art. But I have to say Carrie, you don't have to be someone involved in the government to understand the classified documents should not be stored willy-nilly in someone's home, even in the home of a former president. But this extraordinary letter that Kaitlan reported on from Evan Corcora with, the attorney for the former president, seems to suggest that he cannot be held accountable as a former president for the mishandling of classified documents. What did you make of that?

CORDERO: Yes, so I want to address this issue of declassification. Because there is an argument that appears to be being made perhaps by the former president that he had -- or we've heard this in the public commentary a little bit from his former aides, that he had declassified documents. So a president does have the authority to declassify documents. And it's not so much an issue that there is a really defined, required process because this is an executive authority of a president to be able to declassify. So even if the former president didn't follow a particular process, there still needs to be some demonstration that it actually occurred. And that is what is missing. It's missing from that letter that is attached as an exhibit to this document. It is missing in any argument that is being made on behalf of the former president.


And I would note, the FBI would have had an obligation to tell the judge if they had evidence that a declassification had actually occurred because they would have had an obligation to provide what's known as exculpatory information. So if the government had any indication that the former president had actually declassified this information, it most likely would have been in this document. And it's doesn't appear to be based on what we know.

WILLIAMS: Real quick, think about other powers the president has, if the president were to send troops somewhere, he could think it but he has to convey that order to somebody. It has to be documented somewhere. There has to be a process behind it. He might have wanted these documents declassified. But there -- if there was no process backing it up, they're not declassified.

CORDERO: Right. As far as we know, there has been nothing revealed publicly that indicates and there's nothing in this document that it has been in released in part that indicates there was an actual declassification, completely.

PHILLIP: Elliot Williams, Carrie Cordero, thanks for staying with us. And thank you for joining Inside Politics. Stay with CNN, Bianna Golodryga will continue our coverage of this extraordinary breaking news after a quick break.