WASHINGTON — As Justice Department officials haggled for months this yr with former President Donald J. Trump’s lawyers and aides over the return of presidency documents at his Florida home, federal prosecutors became convinced that they weren’t being told the entire truth.
That conclusion helped set in motion a choice that may amount to an unparalleled test of the Justice Department’s credibility in a deeply polarized political environment: to hunt a search warrant to enter Mar-a-Lago and retrieve what prosecutors suspected could be highly classified materials, beyond the a whole bunch of pages that Mr. Trump had already returned.
By the federal government’s account, that gamble paid off, with F.B.I. agents carting off boxloads of sensitive material through the search three weeks ago, including some documents with top secret markings.
However the matter hardly ended there: What had began as an effort to retrieve national security documents has now been transformed into probably the most difficult, complicated and potentially explosive criminal investigations in recent memory, with tremendous implications for the Justice Department, Mr. Trump and public faith in government.
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland now faces the prospect of getting to make your mind up whether to file criminal charges against a former president and certain 2024 Republican candidate, a step with none historical parallel.
Remarkably, he could have to make this selection twice, depending on what evidence his investigators find of their separate, broad inquiry into Mr. Trump’s efforts to reverse the final result of the 2020 election and his involvement with the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
The department’s Jan. 6 investigation began as a manhunt for the rioters who attacked the Capitol. But last fall it expanded to incorporate actions that occurred before the assault, equivalent to the plan to submit slates of electors to Congress that falsely stated Mr. Trump had won in several key swing states.
This summer, prosecutors within the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington began to ask witnesses directly about any involvement by Mr. Trump and members of his inner circle, including the previous White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, had in efforts to reverse his election loss.
For all his efforts to distance the department from politics, Mr. Garland cannot escape the political repercussions of his decisions. How he handles Mr. Trump will certainly define his tenure.
It remains to be unclear how either case will play out. Prosecutors working on the investigation into Mr. Trump’s handling of classified information are nowhere near making a advice to Mr. Garland, in keeping with individuals with knowledge of the inquiry. Court filings describe the work as continuing, with the opportunity of more witness interviews and other investigative steps to come back.
The Trump Investigations
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The Trump Investigations
Quite a few inquiries. Since former President Donald J. Trump left office, he has been facing several civil and criminal investigations into his business dealings and political activities. Here’s a have a look at some notable cases:
The Trump Investigations
Jan. 6 investigations. In a series of public hearings, the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack laid out a comprehensive narrative of Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. This evidence could allow federal prosecutors, who’re conducting a parallel criminal investigation, to indict Mr. Trump.
The Trump Investigations
Georgia election interference case. Fani T. Willis, the Atlanta-area district attorney, has been leading a wide-ranging criminal investigation into the efforts of Mr. Trump and his allies to overturn his 2020 election loss in Georgia. This case could pose probably the most immediate legal peril for the previous president and his associates.
The Trump Investigations
Recent York State civil inquiry. Letitia James, the Recent York attorney general, has been conducting a civil investigation into Mr. Trump and his family business. The case is concentrated on whether Mr. Trump’s statements concerning the value of his assets were a part of a pattern of fraud or were simply Trumpian showmanship.
Thus far, Mr. Garland has signaled that he’s comfortable with owning all of the choices related to Mr. Trump. He has resisted calls to appoint a special counsel to cope with investigations into the previous president. In his first speech to the department’s 115,000 employees last yr, he expressed faith that together they might handle any case. “All of us are united by our commitment to the rule of law and to looking for equal justice under law,” he said.
Over the course of this yr, as prosecutors sought to grasp how sensitive government documents ended up at Mr. Trump’s Florida resort, they began to look at whether three laws had been broken: the Espionage Act, which outlaws the unauthorized retention or disclosure of national security information; a law prohibiting the mishandling of sensitive government records; and a law against obstructing a federal investigation.
By summertime, the investigation into Mr. Trump’s handling of classified information had began to yield compelling indications of possible intent to thwart the law, in keeping with two people accustomed to the work. While there was not necessarily ironclad evidence, witness interviews and other materials began to point to the opportunity of deliberate attempts to mislead investigators. Along with witness interviews, the Justice Department obtained security camera footage of assorted parts of Mar-a-Lago from the Trump Organization.
What we consider before using anonymous sources.
How do the sources know the data? What’s their motivation for telling us? Have they proved reliable prior to now? Can we corroborate the data? Even with these questions satisfied, The Times uses anonymous sources as a final resort. The reporter and a minimum of one editor know the identity of the source.
The heavily redacted affidavit explaining the federal government’s desire for a search warrant said that the Justice Department had “probable cause to consider that evidence of obstruction shall be found at” Mar-a-Lago, and that “the federal government has well-founded concerns that steps could also be taken to frustrate or otherwise interfere with this investigation if facts within the affidavit were prematurely disclosed.”
But a choice about whether to charge Mr. Trump over attempts to obstruct the investigation, or his handling of sensitive national security information, would involve a wide range of considerations.
At the center of the case could be evidence uncovered by the F.B.I., which remains to be trying to grasp how and why government records made their method to Mar-a-Lago and why some remained there despite repeated requests for his or her return by the National Archives and a later subpoena from the Justice Department.
However the highly classified nature of a few of the documents retrieved from Mar-a-Lago and the possible evidence of obstruction are just some elements that may go into any final decision about pursuing a prosecution.
Profession national security prosecutors will conduct a strong evaluation of whether that evidence persuasively shows that laws were broken. That process will include a have a look at how the facts have been applied in similar cases brought under those self same laws, information that prosecutors examined after they investigated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the previous C.I.A. director David H. Petraeus.
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Key developments within the inquiries into the previous president and his allies.
Within the case involving Mrs. Clinton’s use of a personal email server, for example, officials within the national security division asked prosecutors to dive deep into the history of the Espionage Act. At issue was whether her handling of classified information indicated she had engaged in gross negligence. One compelling case of gross negligence that they did find, involving a former F.B.I. agent, included way more serious aspects. After examining past examples, they found that her case didn’t meet that standard. Ultimately, the consensus was to not charge Mrs. Clinton.
But Mr. Trump’s case presents the extra query of obstruction of justice, and the likelihood that evidence could show that he or his legal team defied the Justice Department to carry onto documents that belonged to the federal government.
That in some ways echoes a previous obstruction inquiry conducted by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel who examined whether Russia interfered within the 2016 election. His final report showed that Mr. Trump tried to curtail, and even end, the special counsel inquiry as he learned more about it. But Mr. Mueller declined to say whether Mr. Trump had broken the law, allowing the attorney general on the time, William P. Barr, to clear Mr. Trump of that crime.
There is no such thing as a method to know whether the Justice Department has facts regarding obstruction that meet its standard of prosecution, which is evidence that may “probably be sufficient to acquire and sustain a conviction.”
However the Justice Department’s own legal filings have thrust the query of obstruction into public view. Should Mr. Garland find that there is just not enough evidence to indict Mr. Trump, the Justice Department under two successive administrations could have chosen to not recommend prosecuting Mr. Trump for that crime.
If Mr. Garland chooses to maneuver forward with charges, it’ll be a historic moment for the presidency, a former leader of the US accused of committing against the law and possibly forced to defend himself before a jury of his fellow residents. It’s a process that might potentially unfold whilst he runs again for the White House against an incumbent whose administration is prosecuting him.
That, too, runs huge risks for the department’s credibility, particularly if the national security threat presented by Mr. Trump’s possession of the documents, inevitably disclosed a minimum of partially through the course of any trial, don’t seem substantial enough to warrant such a grave move.
Mr. Garland and his investigators are fully aware of the implications of their decisions, in keeping with people accustomed to their work. The knowledge that they shall be scrutinized for impropriety and overreach, they are saying, has underscored the necessity to hew to the facts.
But a choice to prosecute — or to say no to prosecute — has political implications that Mr. Garland cannot escape. And irrespective of of judiciousness can change the indisputable fact that he is working inside an America as politically divided because it has been in many years.
Mr. Trump’s supporters have viewed any investigative steps around the previous president as illegitimate attacks by a partisan Justice Department that’s out to get him. And his detractors consider that any decision to not prosecute, irrespective of the evidence, would show that Mr. Trump is indeed above the law.