The political impact of what the FBI found at Mar-a-Lago

A new court filing from the Justice Department reveals that more than 11,000 documents in 33 boxes were recovered from Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate, and that 48 folders marked classified were completely empty. Special correspondent Jeff Greenfield and NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson join Geoff Bennett to discuss the ongoing investigation.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    We are awaiting a decision from a federal judge on whether to grant Donald Trump's request to appoint an independent so-called special master to review the documents that were recovered from Mar-a-Lago some three weeks ago. That says a new court filing from the Justice Department reveals what they found more than 11,000 documents, 33 boxes, seven of which were in the former president's office. That's despite Mr. Trump's attorneys telling the FBI they were all in a storage room. We also learned that 48 folders with classified banners on them were completely empty.

    For more on the ongoing investigation, and the political impact, I'm joined by Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield, and NPR Justice Correspondent Carrie Johnson, who joins me here in the studio.

    It's great to have you both with us. And Carrie, I'll start with you because the more we learn about this investigation, the more questions we have. We're going to put up on the screen this detailed inventory list, all of the documents that were recovered from Mar-a-Lago.

    We want to draw your attention to the 48 empty folders marked classified. The obvious question is, where are those documents? I mean, what does this inventory list? What questions does it raise for you?

  • Carrie Johnson, NPR Justice Correspondent:

    Well, first of all, it discusses the idea that things like books and gifts and clothing and personal items, were all commingled with extremely secret government information that should not have been at Mar-a-Lago in the first place. And so, what was that doing there?

    And secondly, these 48 empty folders marked classified, where are those materials? Are they part of what Trump has already turned over to the National Archives with the DOJ already has? Are those papers out stray somewhere else in the country at another of Trump's residences, say in New Jersey or elsewhere? These are important questions for investigators to answer. And for national security officials which are conducting an ongoing risk assessment of the idea that these papers are out in the wild when they shouldn't be.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And Jeff, Donald Trump's once loyal Attorney General, Bill Barr, was on Fox and basically said this entire thing is effectively Donald Trump's own fault.

  • Bill Barr, Former Attorney General:

    I think the driver on this from the beginning was, you know, loads of classified information sitting in Mar-a-Lago. People say this was unprecedented, but it's also unprecedented for a president to take all this classified information and put them in a country club.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And Barr also said that the former President's request for a special master is really a red herring that even if there were some sort of privilege claim, it doesn't matter because the documents still belonged to the government. How do you react to this?

  • Jeff Greenfield, Special Correspondent:

    I think I think what this does is to give more impetus to the notion that Donald Trump will be front and center in these midterms, if this sounds like a reach, give me a second. We've seen from the Democrats, the notion that they don't want a referendum midterm, they want a choice referendum, as Biden says don't compare me to the Almighty, compared to the alternative.

    The rather shocking revelations about what's going on in Mar-a-Lago just adds more power to the idea that the Democrats want voters in the midterm to think if you vote for Republicans, you're voting for Trump and what Biden calls the MAGA Republicans. So, the turmoil stirred up by what we've heard. And the relative recent retreat from Republicans from full scale defense, you're not hearing too much about abolish the FBI anymore. I think just millions as we've seen for the last six years, it there's something about Donald Trump that puts him front and center and as far as the midterms are concerned, that's exactly where the Democrats want them to be.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And Carrie, as we mentioned, we are awaiting word from this judge, this Trump nominated judge, he was confirmed by the Senate late in 2020. About whether or not she's going to grant his request for a special master. What's the practical impact of that? If she does say, yes, there needs to be a third party, an independent arbiter. I mean, it strikes me that all it would really do is just slow down the investigation.

  • Carrie Johnson:

    It could slow down the criminal investigation, the ongoing and very active criminal investigation. Prosecutors said this week, they're using these papers to pursue other avenues, interviews with witnesses, other grand jury material. It also has the potential to slow down the Director of National Intelligence investigation and risk assessment. Although the Judge said this week, she hopes that doesn't happen.

    In other words, the Justice Department says it's already reviewed a lot of this material for potential attorney client privilege. So, it's not at all clear why this additional review would be necessary if the judge orders it. It's also possible the Justice Department will try to appeal citing the delay to this very important investigation.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And Jeff, as you mentioned, this investigation is the backdrop to the speech that we heard from the current President Joe Biden this past week where he talked about Trumpism as an existential threat. I'm told by White House officials, this speech was months in the making, but the President decided that now was the time to deliver it, in part because of the warnings from some Republican lawmakers about how a potential Trump indictment might lead to lawlessness in the streets and the ways in which the Republican Party is now coalescing around Donald Trump, when you saw that speech, how did it strike you?

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    It struck me as explicitly or maybe implicitly political, because it combined the democracy is in danger with a list of the legislative accomplishments. And at the end, you remember by decide vote, vote, vote. And so, whatever the White House wants to say about the speech, it just clear it had, for me at least a clearly political intention. And that was to nationalize the campaign.

    You know, the famous line from former Speaker O'Neill, it all politics is local, that's often quoted, and it's basically often not true. And for the White House, they don't want it to be true. They want the selection to be decided not just on the fact that there were a few Republican candidates for the Senate, that seem a little outside the mainstream. But they again, they want this campaign focused as much as they can on saying, you might not be that fond of Joe Biden, but look at the alternative. And I believe that was the intention of the speech. It was the opening gun to the last round of the midterms.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And Carrie as we wrap up our conversation here, as you continue to do your reporting on the ongoing investigation, what are you paying close — closest attention to?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    I think we're going to wind up seeing some of the people testifying the grand jury who were in Donald Trump's inner circle, right? And so, it's going to be an open question about that, as well as whether his own lawyers become witnesses or subjects of this criminal investigation. Remember, they had tested they had performed a diligent search after that search, a lot of material was uncovered.

    So, it's quite possible Trump will need to bring in additional members to his legal team on the idea of it, the current members of his legal team may have to testify against him or be in a pickle themselves. It's an extraordinary situation of the former president's own making.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Carrie Johnson and Jeff Greenfield, the best of the best. Thanks for being with us. I appreciate it.

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Thank you.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Thank you.

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