Attorney General Merrick B. Garland moved on Thursday to make public the warrant used in the F.B.I.’s search of former President Donald J. Trump’s residence in Florida — and said he had personally approved the search after “less intrusive” attempts to retrieve documents taken from the White House by Mr. Trump failed.
In a clipped, two-minute statement to reporters at the Justice Department’s headquarters in Washington, Mr. Garland, who previously declined to comment on the search, said he decided to make a public statement because Mr. Trump had confirmed the action. The attorney general also cited the “surrounding circumstances” of the case and the “substantial public interest in this matter.”
Minutes before Mr. Garland took the podium, a top official in the Justice Department’s national security division filed a motion to unseal the warrant — along with an inventory of items retrieved in the search — redacted to prevent the release of national security information.
It is not clear how quickly the warrant and the other documents could be made public or whether Mr. Trump will object.
The former president’s lawyers have the opportunity to challenge the motion. His legal team did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Judge Bruce Reinhart, the judge in the case, issued an order requiring the Justice Department to serve a copy of its motion to Mr. Trump’s lawyers. Mr. Trump and his legal team have until 3 p.m. tomorrow to oppose the motion.
Mr. Garland’s decision to make a public statement came at an extraordinary moment in the Justice Department’s 152-year history, as the sprawling investigation of a former president who remains a powerful political force gains momentum. Prosecutors from an array of the department’s divisions and regional offices are taking new actions, seemingly every day.
Mr. Garland, a laconic former judge, had come under increasing pressure this week to provide more public information about why the Justice Department decided that a search was necessary and who approved it — or at least to offer an explanation of the legal processes undertaken by his subordinates.
But he seemed, even on Thursday, to do so with considerable reluctance. And he reiterated his oft-stated commitment to conducting the inquiry within the confines of the legal system rather than in public, with a goal of protecting the rights of targets of the investigation and its integrity.
“Faithful adherence to the rule of law is the bedrock principle of the Justice Department and of our democracy,” said Mr. Garland, who refused to answer reporters’ shouted questions as he walked slowly out of the seventh-floor briefing room.
“Much of our work is by necessity conducted out of the public eye,” the attorney general added. “We do that to protect the constitutional rights of all.”
His move is less noteworthy for its legal import than its political significance: By giving Mr. Trump the right to oppose the motion in court, Mr. Garland’s team is aiming to shield the Justice Department from accusations that it is unilaterally releasing material intended to embarrass him.
Mr. Garland will also be able to claim to his critics that he has publicly addressed the F.B.I. search and shown the public his legal justification for the action, even though the documents being released are likely to contain minimal new details and be riddled with redactions.
Nor does the department plan to release affidavits — which contain much more information about the behavior of Mr. Trump and evidence presented by others — that were used to obtain the warrant, officials said on Thursday.
Mr. Garland did not directly address an episode earlier on Thursday, in which a man in body armor tried to breach an F.B.I. office outside Cincinnati. Justice Department officials said at the time that Mr. Garland did not have enough information to determine his motive. After fleeing the F.B.I. office premises, the man, who had a gun, was killed Thursday evening in a standoff with law enforcement officers, according to a spokesman for the Ohio State Highway Patrol. Investigators are looking into whether he had ties to extremist groups, including one that participated in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, according to two law enforcement officials familiar with the matter.
Mr. Garland, a former midlevel prosecutor, went out of his way to counter claims by Mr. Trump and his supporters that agents with the bureau or Justice Department lawyers were motivated by politics or behaved inappropriately in the course of requesting and executing the search warrant.
“I will not stand by silently when their integrity is unfairly attacked,” Mr. Garland said.
He added: “The men and women of the F.B.I. and the Justice Department are dedicated, patriotic public servants. Every day, they protect the American people from violent crime, terrorism and other threats to their safety while safeguarding our civil rights. They do so at great personal sacrifice and risk to themselves. I am honored to work alongside them.”
Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director, said in an internal email earlier in the day said he would adjust the bureau’s “security posture” as needed. He also defended the work of the agents involved in the Trump case.
“We don’t cut corners,” he wrote. “We don’t play favorites.”
Mr. Trump’s aides and allies have questioned why a search was necessary, saying that the former president was cooperating with requests to return the materials he had taken with him when he left the White House. Several prominent Republicans, including former Vice President Mike Pence, had called for Mr. Garland to offer an explanation of his actions.
The F.B.I. search was undertaken after federal prosecutors subpoenaed documents that were believed to be improperly removed from the White House and stored in a room at Mar-a-Lago without appropriate security safeguards, according to people familiar with the matter. Some of them are believed to be classified.
Mr. Garland did not say how or when it became clear to his team that 15 boxes of material that Mr. Trump turned over this year was insufficient. But he cast his decision to approve the warrant as a necessity.
“The department does not take such a decision lightly,” Mr. Garland said. “Where possible, it is standard practice to seek less intrusive means as an alternative to a search and to narrowly scope any search that is undertaken.”
The attorney general’s public reticence on the status of the various investigations involving Mr. Trump and his supporters is rooted in the searing experiences of the department’s recent past. Mr. Garland and his inner circle are eager to avoid the approach adopted by James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, whose public statements about investigations into Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign were seen as a political and legal disaster.
The Justice Department had previously provided no information about the precise nature of the material it was seeking to recover, but it signaled that it involved classified information.
The search of Mar-a-Lago added an explosive dimension to the array of investigations into Mr. Trump, including separate inquiries by the Justice Department into his efforts to remain in office despite his loss in the 2020 election.
A senior White House official said that President Biden and his top staff members were not given advance notice of the attorney general’s remarks and learned about it through the news.
Adam Goldman and Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting.
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