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The implications of the FBI's Mar-a-Lago search for Trump

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It has been a day now since FBI agents conducted a search at former President Trump's Mar-a-Lago club and residence in Florida. Trump and his allies have lashed out at the Justice Department and the FBI over the move. NPR's justice correspondent Ryan Lucas has been following all of this and joins us now with the latest. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hey there, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. So I realize the dust is still settling from this FBI search, but can you just bring us up to speed here on what we know so far at this point?

LUCAS: Well, we know that FBI agents carried out this court-authorized search yesterday at Trump's Palm Beach club and residence, Mar-a-Lago. Trump said in a statement that during the search, the agents got into a safe that he has there. Now, Trump was not in Florida when this happened. He was in New York. His son Eric was with him yesterday. And he says he got a call that the search was happening. Here's a bit of what Eric Trump told Fox News' Sean Hannity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC 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.

LUCAS: Now, the FBI and the Justice Department are not commenting, but we know that back in February, the DOJ began investigating the possible mishandling of government secrets after the National Archives retrieved White House records, 15 boxes of them, that had wound up at Mar-a-Lago after Trump left office. Some of the materials in there, the archives say, was marked as classified national security information.

CHANG: Interesting. OK. So I want to ask about some of the language we've been hearing from Trump. He has called this FBI search a, quote, "weaponization" of the justice system. And now his Republican allies are saying similar things. But, Ryan, let's be very clear here. The FBI would have had to take very specific legal steps before they could even begin conducting a search like this, right?

LUCAS: That's right. The FBI would have had to get a warrant from a federal judge to do this. Investigators would have had to go to the court and show that there was probable cause to believe that a crime had been committed and that evidence of that crime was where they wanted to search, so in this instance, at Mar-a-Lago. Even before the FBI takes it to a judge, though, something like this, searching a former president's home would likely have had to have been approved by officials at the very highest levels of the Justice Department. The department is not commenting on whether the attorney general, Merrick Garland himself, signed off on this. All of that said, though, this FBI search does not mean that Donald Trump is on the verge of being indicted. It's important to remember that. And it also doesn't mean that he necessarily ever will be charged here. Still, this is a very big step - searching the home of a former president.

CHANG: A big step because the legal stakes here could be so high. But, you know, Ryan, there are also big political consequences here potentially, right? Can you talk about that piece of all this?

LUCAS: Well, right. For years now, Trump has claimed that he's been unfairly targeted by the FBI and the DOJ. Remember; he calls the investigation into ties between his 2016 campaign and Russia a witch hunt. He's called it that way for years. Already with this Mar-a-Lago search, he's claiming he's being persecuted again, that Democrats are trying to prevent him from running for president again. But bear in mind, the director of the FBI is Christopher Wray, a man who Trump himself appointed. But Trump and his allies are condemning this search anyways. They, like Trump, are claiming that that the DOJ is being weaponized. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is likely to be speaker if Republicans win in the midterm elections, he's promising to investigate the Justice Department. And hanging over all of this, of course, as I've mentioned, is the possibility that Trump will decide to run again for president.

CHANG: Right. OK. So this investigation into the potential mishandling of classified documents, it's not the only legal jeopardy that Trump is facing right now. Like, there's also the investigation to January 6. Just round it up. What else is he facing at this point legally?

LUCAS: Right. The big one on people's minds relates to January 6, to the attack on the Capitol that day, and then the scheme to put forward a slate of fake electors. We know that two senior aides to former Vice President Mike Pence have testified before a grand jury here in Washington, D.C. The grand jury is also expecting to hear from former Trump White House counsel Pat Cipollone. Then there's a district attorney in Georgia who is investigating efforts to overturn Trump's loss in that state in the 2020 election. The New York state attorney general have a civil investigation underway into Trump's business practices. And then on the congressional front, of course, there's the House Select Committee's investigation into January 6. But the investigation now into the boxes of White House records and how they ended up at Mar-a-Lago, that's one that's flown under the radar for a while. It, though, has now moved front and center with this FBI search.

CHANG: That is NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thank you, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.