Analysis: Trump looks to seize on feud with FBI as critical court hearing looms
(CNN)Ex-President Donald Trump is considering the next escalation of his feud with the FBI, which has already put agents at risk and appears to be part of his effort to turn the search of his home for classified documents into a launch pad for his likely 2024 campaign.
Trump is trying to fight back as the legal mire deepens around him and some of his closest associates rooted in his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. But the multiple criminal, congressional and civil probes swirling around the former President are doing nothing to dim his appeal to Republican grassroots voters who are flocking to candidates who have embraced his election denialism — as Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney’s primary defeat on Tuesday showed.
In the latest twist of the saga involving the FBI’s removal of documents from Trump’s Florida mansion last week, including some bearing the highest levels of classification, CNN reported on Wednesday that the former President is considering releasing surveillance footage of the bureau’s search. The move might be motivated by Trump’s desire to fire up his supporters with the impression that he is being persecuted, and there have been discussions of using it in campaign-style ads, one person familiar with the conversations told CNN.
It would likely cause deep alarm inside the FBI since its agents have already faced threats and intimidation from Trump supporters incited by the ex-President and his allies. Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Wednesday that the leadership of the bureau would have “deep concern” at the implications of security camera footage of the search going public.
“When you are executing a search warrant for the purpose of recovering highly classified material, the last thing you want to have is a video of that material released to the public,” McCabe said. He also warned tapes would pose an increased risk to agents involved in the search and would increase the threats to them from the ex-President’s “most extreme supporters.”
Still, the move would be consistent with Trump’s long desire to discredit the FBI. And it would allow him to whip up anger over the search and distract from the real issue in the controversy — the fact that he took classified material to his home after his administration ended, not just in possible infringements of laws on presidential records but in a manner that could threaten national security.
A critical court hearing in Florida
The report about Trump’s deliberations over security footage came on the eve of a critical next move in the case over Trump’s retention of classified documents.
The judge that authorized the warrant for the FBI search, which was unsealed last week along with property receipt, will hold a hearing on Thursday to discuss requests to unseal an affidavit that contains details of why he found probable cause that crimes had been committed.
The Justice Department has vehemently warned that disclosing the affidavit at this stage would “likely chill future cooperation” by witnesses. The bureau also wrote in its filing to the court that the probe’s focus on highly classified materials would exacerbate the harm if details were disclosed to the public prematurely. (CNN is among media organizations that asked the judge to unseal the affidavit, citing the historic importance of the search of a former president’s property).
The former President has called for the “immediate release” of the affidavit, falsely calling the search a “horrible and shocking BREAK-IN,” on his Truth Social network. The search, however, was conducted on a legally obtained warrant signed off by a judge in accordance with procedure. FBI agents took away 11 sets of classified documents, including one set marked “top secret/SCI,” one of the highest levels of classification.
One goal for Trump in seeking the release of the affidavit might be so that he could cherry pick individual pieces of information and discredit them in the eyes of his supporters — as he often does to rebut wider legal and political threats. If, as the Justice Department says, releasing this information would chill witness cooperation, the ex-President would likely see that to his benefit as well.
Still, it’s hardly certain that releasing the affidavit would benefit Trump. It could well paint an even more damning picture of his conduct than has already emerged. Similarly, one person close to Trump warned that making public surveillance footage of the search could backfire against the former President if agents are pictured carrying large numbers of documents, including classified material, away from his residence.
On the issue of the affidavit, many legal experts believe the judge is unlikely to order release of the entire document, given the government’s strong opposition and given possible fears of threats against witnesses and any FBI agent that might be named.
“I think it’s very unlikely, even if this was not a national security investigation. It’s almost unheard of for a judge to unseal the affidavit in support of a search warrant while the investigation is ongoing before anyone has been charged,” Page Pate, a constitutional law attorney, said on CNN’s “Newsroom” on Wednesday.
Some Republicans have demanded the release of the affidavit on the grounds that the FBI and the Justice Department need to justify the unprecedented step of organizing a search at the home of a former president.
But Pate said: “If the government objects to it, I don’t see the judge releasing it unless there is substantial redaction — black lines over 90% of the affidavit.”
More legal exposure for Trump world
The latest stunning developments involving Trump’s camp come as the legal challenges appear to be mounting for those who were alongside him in the fraught days after the 2020 election. On Wednesday, Trump’s former attorney, Rudy Giuliani, who has just been told he is a target of a probe into election subversion schemes in Georgia, appeared before a grand jury in the state.
His appearance raises concerns that the former President could also face criminal exposure in the probe in Fulton County, given his efforts to get local officials to overturn President Joe Biden’s win in the critical swing state.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a top Trump ally on Capitol Hill who has been subpoenaed in the probe, asked a federal judge to stay a decision requiring him to appear next week until he can appeal, according to a new court filing on Wednesday.
In a separate case in New York, the former chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, Allen Weisselberg, is expected to plead guilty on Thursday to a 15-year tax fraud scheme. Under the terms of the deal reported by CNN’s Kara Scannell, Weisselberg — one of the longest serving and most loyal Trump lieutenants — would receive a five-month prison sentence but would serve about 100 days behind bars. He would not sign up to cooperate with the investigation but would testify at trial if the case moves forward and the Trump Organization does not reach a plea agreement.
The volume of investigations and legal concerns for Trump and those around him is expansive and spans his business, his treatment of classified material after he left the White House, his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his incitement of an insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
But the darkening legal thicket doesn’t seem to be turning off the ex-President’s most fervent supporters, who continue to vote for Trump-backed primary candidates who buy into his falsehoods about a stolen election.
“It is no longer a party, it’s a cult and it is a cult of Donald Trump,” former New Jersey Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman said on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper” on Wednesday. Whitman was reacting to the defeat of Cheney, a staunch conservative who fell to a Trump-backed challenger who has touted his misinformation and lies about the 2020 election.
Cheney, the vice chair of the House select committee investigating the Capitol insurrection, delivered a warning in her concession speech Tuesday night that Trump’s behavior in the wake of the FBI search could result in a new violent outburst in the same vein as the assault by his mob on the Capitol 19 months ago. Her comments appeared even more chilling in the wake of the ex-President’s latest considerations about the surveillance footage.
“Today, our federal law enforcement is being threatened. A federal judge is being threatened. Fresh threats of violence are rising everywhere,” Cheney said Tuesday, referring to the intimidation that followed the FBI search.
“No patriotic American should excuse these threats or be intimidated by them. Our great nation must not be ruled by a mob provoked over social media.”