Investigations surrounding former President Trump intensify ahead of midterms

Former President Trump is at the center of several ongoing investigations. From missing classified government documents to influencing 2020 election results, the probes loom over a contentious midterm season. Andrea Bernstein is a reporter covering democracy for Pro-Publica and is a contributing writer to NPR. She joined William Brangham to discuss the developments.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Former President Donald Trump is at the center of several ongoing investigations, from missing classified government documents, to influencing 2020 election results.

    William Brangham takes a look at the developments in these probes that loom over a contentious midterm season.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Amna.

    There are multiple and, at times, overlapping investigations into the former president, his actions and those of his allies.

    So, we want to turn again to someone who has been tracking all of them closely. Andrea Bernstein is a reporter covering democracy for ProPublica and a regular contributor to NPR. She's also the author of "American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power."

    Andrea, great to have you back on the program.

    So, first off…

  • Andrea Bernstein, ProPublica:

    Great to speak with you.

  • William Brangham:

    … let's talk about this, the Mar-a-Lago documents investigation.

    This is a probe into whether or not the president improperly took classified documents from the White House down to his home in Florida. We know the FBI executed the search warrant and took a whole bunch of boxes out of there.

    What is the latest on that particular investigation?

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    So, both sides have gone to the judge this week and commented on her order, which was essentially for the Justice Department to pause its investigation while a special master goes through the documents to see if there were any privileged documents.

    Special master is a phenomenon that has really emerged in Trump-related investigations. It came up in the Michael Cohen investigation. It came up in the Rudy Giuliani investigation. In both those cases, they argued that they were attorneys for President Trump, so some of the documents could have attorney-client privilege.

    The complicated thing here is that this is the president, the ex-president, in possession of classified documents. And the government is arguing, the Department of Justice is arguing that he has no right to those documents, that they are clearly government property by their nature, because they are marked classified. So, therefore, there is no question of privilege.

    And with respect to the classified documents, the Justice Department is arguing, they should have unfettered access, both to investigate and for national security reasons.

    President Trump, former President Trump's attorneys have said, well, we need to pause, there might be something that they shouldn't be looking at there. The Justice Department response has been OK, we won't look at what might be actually personal to the former president, but these classified documents are ours and we have a right to them, and we are now waiting for the Florida judge to decide whether the Justice Department can go ahead and have access to these classified documents.

    So that is the status right now as we are waiting for a judicial ruling.

  • William Brangham:

    There's been this ongoing speculation as to why the former president would have taken some of these secretive documents down to Mar-a-Lago. And we still don't know the answer to that.

    But you published a piece in ProPublica today that hinted, hinted, I shouldn't say, as to why he might have. Can you explain?

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    Right. Well, exactly. We don't know the reason.

    But I have covered Trump and his business for a long time. And so many people have spoken to me about how, as a businessman, Donald Trump would use information that he collected or that he collected at his properties to wield power.

    And I recently spoke with former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, who told me there was an occasion when Trump did not want her to approve a tunnel essentially to a rival casino, because Trump at the time thought it would help his rival, so he pressured Whitman. And he called her up and he said, you wouldn't want anybody to find out anything about your son.

    This was nonpublic information. Her then-high school aged son had gotten drunk at a Trump property and had to go to the hospital. She doesn't know how he — how Trump found out about it. But she said that he used that information to try to pressure her decision to go his way.

    And this is something that I have heard over and over and over from associates, employees, journalists and others scrutinizing Trump, that he has obtained private information and then tried to use it for his benefit. So, again, we don't know why he has those documents, but we know he had a habit as a private businessman of collecting, if you will, dirt on opponents.

  • William Brangham:

    Let's turn to another big investigation. This is under way. This is the one in Georgia.

    The Fulton County district attorney, Fani Willis, is looking into whether and how the Trump campaign and different allies improperly, perhaps, pressured elections officials, how they counted the votes, how they reported those votes back to Washington, D.C.

    What is the latest on that particular probe?

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    That appears to be a very active investigation.

    A number of the former president's allies have been subpoenaed to testify. Some of them, including Rudy Giuliani, have testified. This is, of course, the investigation involving the phone call that the former president made to the Georgia secretary of state, saying, please find me 11,780 votes, which is one more vote than he would have needed to win the state of Georgia. So that was something that everybody heard.

    That investigation has publicly been much more active, in some ways, than the Department of Justice's investigation, since January 6. But, of course, as I have come to learn covering these cases, these criminal cases, you don't actually know the course and the trajectory of an investigation until, if and when there is some kind of indictment.

  • William Brangham:

    And then the January 6, investigation is also going on here in Washington, D.C., where a bipartisan congressional committee is looking into the role that the former president might have played inciting the events of January 6, and also this larger attempt to thwart the counting and certification of the election.

    A lot of activity in that most recently. What's been happening there?

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    So, they just announced that they're going to have more public hearings at the end of the month or a hearing beginning at the — beginning at the end of the month.

    And they left us back in July with a lot of questions about the former president, his allies, the structure of the scheme. We know that a lot of witnesses were coming forward. We know that the hearings, as planned, were upended when they got additional information.

    And we don't know exactly what they are going to present. They have kept everything very close to the vest in that committee. But we do know that, when we have seen the hearings, we have learned a lot, and expect to do so at this future hearing as well.

  • William Brangham:

    So many complicated cases going on.

    Andrea Bernstein, thank you so much for helping us wade through them all.

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    Thank you.

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