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FBI Searches Trump's Mar-a-Lago Home in Classified Doc Probe. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired August 09, 2022 - 06:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: It is something that has never happened before. At least not like this. The FBI searches the home of a former president. So, why? Why would a federal judge agree there was probable cause a crime had been committed? What exactly were agents looking for? What is so urgent that Merrick Garland would sign off on this, assuming he did?


I'm John Berman here with Brianna Keilar. These are some of the questions we will try to answer this morning. Admittedly, some of these questions don't yet have answers.

This is what we know so far. Early Monday morning, federal agents executing a warrant searched Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort. We are told this is part of an investigation into the handling of classified documents, taking them from the White House to Mar-a-Lago.

Mishandling classified documents, hiding or destroying them, if that is what happened, could absolutely be against the law.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Searching the home of a former president for possible evidence of a crime would require approval at the top levels of the Justice Department. And a source tells CNN the FBI search included examining where these documents were kept. And that boxes of items were actually taken from the resort from Trump's home.

Trump's son Eric declined (ph) the search. He says it was conducted over documents sought by the National Archives.


ERIC TRUMP, SON OF DONALD TRUMP: The purpose of the raid, from what they said, was because the National Archives wanted to corroborate whether or not Donald Trump had any documents in his possession. And my father has worked so collaboratively with them for months.


KEILAR: Now, we should say, that's what we're hearing from Trump world, right? The DOJ is not out on news shows talking, and there are things that we still don't know about what they were searching for and what would justify this kind of unprecedented move.

We begin our coverage with CNN's Leyla Santiago, who is live outside of Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, with the very latest -- Leyla.

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, we're coming up on almost a full 24 hours since this search warrant was executed right here at the primary residence of the former president, Donald Trump.

It's quite a different scene this morning. Yesterday, when we were here, we saw protesters on the streets, a small group. And his supporters lining the streets with flags, even cars going up and down the street in front of Mar-a-Lago with flags in support of President Trump.

So this is something. This unprecedented action is something that is definitely riling up the base as we see it here.

So, let's talk about exactly what we know when it comes to the execution of this search warrant. According to sources familiar with the investigation telling CNN that President Trump was not at the home when this happened. That the law enforcement personnel that went in to execute this search warrant was focused, primarily, on Trump's offices, as well as the personal quarters, where he is.

And as you mentioned off the top, that this is related to the handling of presidential documents, including -- excuse me, including classified records. So, let's back into how we got here.

Remember, in recent months, the National Archives responsible for collecting and sorting presidential records recovered documents from Mar-a-Lago, where we are right now, and that included classified information.

We know that more documents were taken yesterday, because the president's attorney confirmed that, but the Department of Justice staying very tight-lipped as to exactly what was taken, what they were looking for, at this point, saying no comment -- Brianna, John.

KEILAR: All right, Leyla, thank you so much, live for us from Palm Beach there outside of Mar-a-Lago.

BERMAN: So what laws exactly are at play here? Let's go to CNN's senior crime and justice reporter Katelyn Polantz. Katelyn, you've done a lot of work on this for a long time, because this issue really bubbled to the surface several months ago. So what laws are we talking about?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, John, we heard a lot about the Presidential Records Act throughout the Trump administration. Lots of people have complained about the maintenance of documents. That's not what we're talking about here, apparently.

We -- there's things that we know here, but there are so many questions that still need to be answered. So, the things that we know, they removed boxes and paper documents when the FBI went in, that this was part of the investigation into handling of classified records.

But some of the things we don't know right now that are going to be really important in understanding what this investigation actually is, questions like what were they looking for. Why now go in? Why not just cut a subpoena or ask nicely for the people at Mar-a-Lago, Trump's lawyers, to turn over records?

And then there's the other question of who the target is, what the full shape of the investigation looks like. When you step back, there are laws that protect federal records, things like the Presidential Records Act.

But the Presidential Records Act is not the sort of thing that has any teeth that can bring about a criminal investigation, and especially, a search of Mar-a-Lago. The president's home, his beach club, in Palm Beach.

And so, we do often see lawsuits over the Presidential Records Act. But when a criminal investigation comes in, it must be something more, like related to the destruction of records, or the possible fear of destruction of records.

And then, of course, there's that question of the handling of classified documents. But I should add, related to Trump here, he was the president. And as president, he did have the ability to declassify documents. So that further complicates things on top of the many complications you already have in a criminal investigation that ropes in the president's home like this -- John.

BERMAN: A president can declassify documents. A former president cannot retroactively declassify documents. So if he didn't declassify them if they existed when he -- before he went to Mar-a-Lago, they were never declassified. But these were the distinctions that we just don't know yet if they are in play and they are important here.

Katelyn Polantz, thank you so much for laying out the laws here. I want to bring in attorney and contributing columnist at the "Washington Post," George Conway.

George, great to see you this morning. Please, let's just take a step back. Because this is so unusual. We haven't seen anything like this before.

So when you heard that the FBI executed a search warrant at the home of the former president, what questions does it raise for you? What standards, in your mind, must have been met?

GEORGE CONWAY, ATTORNEY AND CONTRIBUTING COLUMNIST, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, obviously, it has to meet the basic standard of any search warrant. You have to show probable cause that a someone -- might not be Donald Trump, or it could be Donald Trump -- committed a crime and probable cause that there is evidence of that crime in the location being searched.

And you have to particularize exactly what it is that you're looking for, and you have to put that all in an affidavit that a federal judge reviews and then makes a determination that there is sufficient cause to -- to invade someone's privacy and to come into someone's home and do this. That's -- that's one thing. But again, this is a former president. And the political consequences,

the national consequences, of going over your skis on this are just too huge for anything but the most significant evidence, I think, that would justify Merrick Garland, who is cautious, a cautious person to authorize this. And it had to be authorized by him personally.

And so you have to ask, what is it about this particular circumstance that has led the Justice Department to this step. Obviously, they don't quite trust him, because they, obviously, don't think that subpoenaing him or requesting documents from him will get them the answers they want.

But what is it that they want? Well, it -- it probably isn't just that he took some documents in a rush and packed them in 15 boxes and shipped them to Mar-a-Lago without focusing on what was in them. OK. There's got to be something more. It's got -- maybe it's the nature of the materials.

Or it could be that he sent some of them back and represented that -- I'm just speculating here. I mean, you know, he's -- he's not the most honest person in the world and not the most meticulous in obeying -- obeying laws and rules. Maybe he didn't send them all back. And they're suspicious that he didn't, that he didn't send them all back, in which case he could be -- he could be -- he might be potentially liable for making false statements through his lawyers to the National Archives. We don't know. Again, we don't know.

We need to see what the FBI presented to this federal judge. It could be that some documents were destroyed. It could be something completely different. It could be that maybe there's some overlap between the materials he kept and January 6th, that that's even possible. Although there's no indication of that.

So -- but there is something here that made this quite -- more than just somebody mistakenly, or accidentally, or carelessly packing 15 boxes of materials and sending them to Mar-a-Lago. His excuse would be, Hey, I'm president of the United States. I didn't focus on this. I was busy. But hey, what he was busy at was launching a coup.

KEILAR: The narrative coming from his camp, coming from his son Eric is this is a continuation of the National Archives issue. Would there potentially be an interest in putting that narrative out there, George, if really it might be something different? And would they necessarily even know if it was something different?

CONWAY: They may not necessarily know. Because the search warrant could be for all documents that were unlawfully retained pursuant -- in violation of the Presidential Records Act.

And that could, you know, basically, everything he took from Mar-a- Lago -- I mean, not from Mar-a-Lago, to Mar-a-Lago, from the White House.

And that could include January 6th material. It may not. It just depends on what they think is there. And obviously, they have some basis to conclude that there's something interesting there. And they took out, apparently, boxes and boxes of materials that suggest that maybe he did not return all the materials.

Or maybe there is something in there that indicates that, you know, some nefarious intent was -- he had some nefarious intent in bringing the documents to Mar-a-Lago. We just don't know at this point.

BERMAN: If there were a classified document of some kind that the farmer president had improperly kept, manipulated, destroyed, whatever, how and why would it be in the national interest for the FBI to get its hands on that?

CONWAY: Well, I mean, that's -- if there are classified documents there, or evidence that classified documents have been mishandled, mistreated or destroyed, you know, that's a very serious thing. People have gone to jail for that. And people -- people have gotten convicted of that.

And if he did it with a large number of documents -- and I think there's been some reporting that even the list of classified documents is so -- is long, and it's the documents -- some of the documents may have been so sensitive that they couldn't actually describe the document without making a list that was classified.

This -- this could be some very serious materials with some serious national security interests in jeopardy, because of Donald Trump's carelessness. Or, worse.

KEILAR: Why should this be viewed, or should it not be viewed, as these DOJ probes encircling, or getting tighter, around Donald Trump?

CONWAY: Well, it absolutely is. I mean, the fact that -- I mean, they have crossed -- and I hate the metaphor, because people are using it; it's getting overused -- they crossed the Rubicon here. They -- this is a very serious -- it's unprecedented for a search to -- not even San Clemente, Richard Nixon's house at San Clemente was searched by the FBI, as far as I know.

And so it's just a remarkable thing to see that the FBI and the Justice Department would take such a step. And -- and the fact that a federal judge approved it shows that, hey, they've got something there. We just don't know what it is.

BERMAN: It sounds like you're saying this is not very Merrick Garland- y, for lack of a better word. This --


BERMAN: This does -- not right?

CONWAY: No. Well, I mean -- well, it is Merrick Garland-y in the following sense. He truly believes, as he has said repeatedly, that no one is above the law. And so, this is -- this is an example of that.

But it's also -- it is not necessarily Merrick Garland-y in just the fact that it's -- it's no matter what the predicate is, it's a bold step. So, you know, he's not someone who does things rationally.

So you have to tend to conclude that there is something there behind the curtain that -- that would surprise us or shock us or something.

KEILAR: How seriously should Donald Trump be taking this, do you think, George?

CONWAY: I -- I think anytime the Federal Bureau of Investigation comes to your house early in the morning and knocks on the door and starts rummaging through your home with a list of things that it's specifically looking for, you should be worried.

BERMAN: You have heard, no doubt, since --

CONWAY: I'd be worried if I was him.

BERMAN: Look, we keep saying that Donald Trump confirmed the execution of this warrant. He didn't confirm it; he announced it. Donald Trump is the one who got out in front of this and said, Hey, the FBI has been out there searching. So, in a way, he has tried to control this story from yesterday afternoon into evening.

And part of that, we have seen Trump allies and a lot of Republicans say, Hey, wait a second, this -- this is a wing-shot (ph). We've heard cries to defund the FBI. People saying this is what happens in third- world countries, including sitting U.S. senators, Republican senators. What do you think of that criticism, George?

CONWAY: I mean, it's just absolutely disgraceful. I mean, these are the people who are complaining about people saying, defund the police when the laws are being applied to people who don't hold political power and don't have billions of dollars.

And yet now, they want to defund the FBI on absolutely no basis at all, because they don't actually know what the facts are. They have no idea what the facts are. They just -- it's simply that their fearless leader is -- his conduct has been called into question.

And even though he -- we have every reason to distrust Donald Trump. We have every reason to believe that he is a pathological liar and somebody who bends the law, bends the truth, distorts the truth. You know, they are basically saying that the -- that law enforcement is engaging in some kind of a political attack.


Well, the fact of the matter is, it's not -- we -- there's no reason to believe that. And there's no basis for them to assert that.

KEILAR: They're also saying, Donald Trump supporters, look at how Hillary Clinton was treated, right? And look at how Donald Trump was treated, making this apples-to-apples case as they see it. And they're saying that Donald Trump is being treated differently. How do you see it?

CONWAY: I think Hillary Clinton would -- would beg to differ. I mean, she went through a very lengthy investigation of a year, a year and a half. And she testified on this -- actually cooperated with a lengthy, intrusive investigation of her conduct. And ultimately, some people believe it cost her the 2016 presidential

election. So -- so you know, she didn't get exactly off scot-free. And that's on the one hand.

On the other hand, we don't know where this is going to lead yet. And we don't know what the evidence is. This could -- may not lead necessarily to a conviction of some sort or it might -- we don't know what he did. And we don't know -- you know, we don't know how sensitive these documents were, compared to the various emails that were on Secretary Clinton's private server. We just don't know any of that.

And to prejudge it in that way is just intensity hypothetical, because these people are the same people who were saying, "Lock her up." And so, if you were to apply the same standards here, they should be saying, "Lock him up."

BERMAN: George Conway, great to have you here, helping us understand what we know, and frankly what we don't know or still need to find out in this story. Because there are so many questions out there. Thank you so much, George.

We are still piecing together all this new information coming in on the FBI executing a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago. How does a search like this actually play out? And what role did the FBI director, who was appointed by Donald Trump himself, play in all this?

Also this morning, gas prices drop again, the average now nearing $4 a gallon.

KEILAR: And all eyes are on the key battleground state of Wisconsin today, where another Pence versus Trump primary battle is under way. Harry Enten is here with what to watch for.



KEILAR: The FBI executing a search warrant at former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort, sources telling CNN this search is part of an investigation into the handling of presidential documents. There are so many unanswered questions here, though.

But how does the FBI carry out an unprecedented search warrant at a former president's residence happen? How does this take place? Let's bring in former FBI deputy assistant director Pete Strzok. He's the author of "Compromise: Counterintelligence and the Threat of Donald J. Trump."

Peter, we know some things about this, right? We know that there was some coordination ahead of time between the Secret Service and the FBI, because there is a small Secret Service presence there. But just walk us through how this would play out in Mar-a-Lago.

PETER STRZOK, FORMER FBI DEPUTY ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: Yes, absolutely. It's really hard to overstate the complexity and planning that goes into a search like this.

And let's step back from yesterday. As CNN reported late last night, that in early June of this year, so about two months ago, a team of investigators that was led by the head of DOJ's counterintelligence and expert control section went down to Mar-a-Lago and met with Trump's attorneys. Some indication that Trump himself stepped in.

And during that meeting, they took -- they walked into the area. They went down to the basement, apparently, where documents were stored. And what's really notable about this, is seven days later, after that meeting, sent a letter to Mar-a-Lago saying, You need to secure that room downstairs. And they subsequently put a padlock on it.

And that's important for two reasons. Again, this is two months ago this DOJ and FBI team saw things that concerned them to the extent they said put a lock on it.

But it's also important because it gave the investigators an eye on the ground. They got a chance to see how Mar-a-Lago was set up, where documents were stored, and give them an idea of the lay of the land.

Now, when you fast forward to yesterday, a lot of planning goes into that. The first thing you have to do is get the team in safely. Now, of course, the Secret Service provides protection for all areas where Trump lives. He was up in New York. So the Secret Service presence wasn't likely as large. But it was still there. So that coordination is necessary to make sure everybody's safe.

And then once that team gets on the ground, you have a number of moving pieces. You have, first and foremost, likely had some sort of filter team, a group of agents, investigators and probably attorneys who are looking to sort out and make sure that any sort of privileged communications between Trump and his attorneys are not exposed to the actual investigators. And so anything seized first has to likely go through a filter team.

All of this has been documented by a photographer. And then the material that is seized is meticulously cataloged and is going to be left with a receipt that is there on the property or given to one of Trump's attorneys.

So what will be interesting, need to see if former President -- former President Trump is, in fact, committed to being very open and transparent about what occurred, first thing he can do is release that receipt of -- property receipt of what was taken on the ground.

BERMAN: Right. And obviously, this would reveal a lot of information to us, as would the affidavit here and the search warrant. All of this stuff would provide us with information.

Peter, if anyone knows what it's like to be part of a politically radioactive investigation, it's you, right? So what would have had to have happened here? Who would have had to have signed off on this, given the clear, politically-sensitive nature of this for this warrant to be executed as it was? STRZOK: Well, absolutely, the highest levels would have approved this.

I mean, people are fond of saying, Oh, we've never seen anything like this. But in this case, there has never been -- there is no FBI agent who has ever conducted and executed a search warrant at the residence of a former president. So this is, in fact, unprecedented.


And for something of this magnitude, something of this significance, there's little doubt in my mind that the director of the FBI, Chris Wray, was briefed and detailed about this operation, approved it.

And similarly, I have no doubt that both Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco and Attorney General Merrick Garland were well aware of this and approved it, as well.

So this -- nothing -- No search warrant is taken lightly. I mean, this is a very intrusive investigative technique. A judge has to approve it.

But when you're talking about the context of a former president, something that has never been done in our nation's history, I have no doubt that this was scrutinized at the very highest levels in great detail.

And another important thing to note. Traditionally, there's a 90-day buffer around election time where DOJ does not tend to take overt investigative steps. Look at the dates we're talking about right now in early August. Three months from now is election day.

So I also have a -- I have a feeling and I have a sense that part of the timing about this search warrant yesterday was driven by, potentially, the approaching dates of the midterm elections.

KEILAR: Yes, it's a very good point. Peter, thank you so much for your insights here. Peter Strzok.

The price of gas is actually dropping again this morning. That's very good news. It's nearing the $4 a gallon mark. So how fast will it continue to drop, and is this going to last?

BERMAN: Actor Ashton Kutcher says he is lucky to be alive after nearly losing his hearing, his sight and the ability to walk. Details ahead.