Alcindor: It has been an extraordinary week of news. Legal challenges for former president Donald Trump and it has been a week since a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago. Trump under investigation for possibly violating the espionage act and possible obstruction of justice. FBI agents were looking for nuclear documents and carried out boxes of classified information. After the search, Republicans expressed outrage.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA): We now find that justice in America is not equal. Whether you want to go after a political person or not.
Alcindor: On Thursday, the attorney general made a rare public statement.
Garland: Upholding the rule of law means applying the law evenly without fear or favor. Under my watch that is what the Justice Department is doing.
Alcindor: Former President Trump is defending himself today. In a statement, he said, quote, number one, it was all declassified. Number two, they did not have to seize anything. They could have had it anytime they wanted without playing politics.
Of course, something the DOJ takes issue with.
Joining me tonight to discuss this big news weekend more, Evan Perez, CNN senior justice correspondent.
And joining me in studio, Robert Costa, he’s chief election and campaign correspondent for CBS News, and co-author with Bob Woodward, of the book, "Peril". He’s also, of course, a former moderator of WASHINGTON WEEK. So we are glad to have him back.
And also, we have Philip Rucker, the deputy national editor for "The Washington Post".
Thank you all for being here.
Evan, of course, this is a huge week, huge moment for our country when we’ve never seen the home, the residence of a former president searched, but also using words like nuclear documents and Espionage Act.
Talk a little bit about what led to this search, why the search happened. And also, what did federal officials obtain based on your reporting?
Evan Perez, Senior Justice Correspondent, CNN: Well, yeah. I mean, it is an extraordinary thing for the FBI to take a step like this. And I think it’s important for people to sort of understand, despite what the former president is saying and his team are saying, which is they have been cooperative, the record indicates there has been some very contentious discussions between his lawyers and the Justice Department that were increasingly getting contentious before we get to this point.
And you heard this from the attorney general. He said in his remarks, he said that, you know, this step was only taken after less intrusive means were exhausted. And those less intrusive means were subpoenas. They actually served a subpoena.
We didn’t know this. You know, we’ve been reporting on this Mar-a-Lago investigation, these 15 boxes that were taken from the National -- by the National Archives back in May of 2021. We have been looking into this and everything we heard from the Trump team was that everything is fine. There’s nothing going on.
It turns out they were the subject of a subpoena. In June, the agents went there and retrieved documents that were classified. And then even after that, they served another subpoena to get surveillance tapes from Mar-a-Lago. And then, of course, the search that happens on Monday. So, in context, it means that this has been a building process before they took this unprecedented step of doing this search.
And, of course, today, we learned there’s nearly 33 -- a list of 33 items here. Eleven sets of documents that were various levels of classification, including top secret SCI. This is the highest level, the stuff you have to go into special rooms to be able to read in the U.S. government.
Alcindor: And, Phil, "The Washington Post" is reporting that some of these documents, your paper, of course, "The Washington Post", is reporting that some of these documents are nuclear weapons. We’ve covered Trump together but this week seems to have really been a different kind of moment for him.
I wonder, what’s your sense of this moment given what we know about former President Trump, what we know about what federal officials obtained?
Philip Rucker, Deputy National Editor, The Washington Post: Well, Yamiche, what my colleagues at "The Post" are reporting is that some of the documents the FBI agent were looking for when they searched his home and private club on Monday did pertain -- were classified documents pertaining to nuclear weapons. But we don’t know exactly what programs those were or what the documents said.
But the big picture here, you point out, is it’s really a culmination for Trump of two threads, I would say. He has been fascinated by nuclear weaponry since the beginning of his presidency. It’s something he would talk to aides a lot about in private, something he would talk about publicly as well. But he’s also been very careless over the years with classified information. He will routinely reveal classified secrets publicly, at pres conferences, to foreign government officials at times.
You remember the dinner he had with the prime minister of Japan early in the presidency at Mar-a-Lago where he was sort of openly talking about a secret operation. And so, this is somebody, a president, a now former president who really has had little regard to the levels of classification and the rules that sort of govern these secrets in the government.
Alcindor: And, Bob, you’re nodding your head. I know you spoke to Ambassador John Bolton, who is, of course, the former national security advisor under former President Trump. Talk about what he told you and what your reporting has been in these last few hours.
Robert Costa, Chief Election and Campaign Correspondent, CBS News: Quite a conversation a few hours ago with the former president. When I sat down with Ambassador Bolton, I said, take me back to the room. What was it like when the former president was briefed by intelligence officials?
And he said, sometimes, Trump would ask for the documents he was given by his briefers and the briefers would say, sir, probably best you not keep them. He said I would like to keep them.
And I said to Bolton, well, what did you make of that? Bolton said, well, I was alarmed. Now, Bolton is a Trump critic but it goes to Phil’s point in his reporting about how there was a fear, to a point even an alarm at times, inside the Trump administration, inside the intelligence community about how this president handled documents while he was president and when he left the White House.
But we are still curious as reporters about what was a foundational evidence for this decision? What was in the affidavit that led to the subpoenas and then the search?
Alcindor: And, Bob, those are definitely threads that we’re going to be following. Though we should also talk about the fact that former President Trump is calling this a witch hunt. I have talk to some sources who say and the New York Times is reporting this as well, there are some sources that say he’s treating this like a PR problem when it’s really a legal problem.
What are you hearing about the way the former president is dealing with legal challenges ahead?
Costa: Well, you saw in a statement a few hours the former president said he declassified all of these documents. We’re not sure yet about the details of whether he declassified documents, how he did so, how exactly this was done.
But regardless of classification, this is still a legal challenge for the former president. You mentioned the Espionage Act. The Espionage Act deals with how you deal with defense-related documents, regardless of their classification. So, he will face legal scrutiny about not just classified documents, but documents related to the national defense as covered by this law, the Espionage Act.
Alcindor: And, Phil, we saw Republicans, a lot of Trump allies jumped to his defense in the moments after the search warrant was executed. We have also seen some staunch critics -- staunch allies of former President Trump sort of shifting their tone.
I want to talk about Elise Stefanik in particular. She says the FBI and the DOJ have been, quote, weaponized, but she’s also saying, quote, it’s important to follow the facts wherever they lead.
What does that tell you about the way the GOP is handling this? They’re rallying around him but also shifting a bit. Why do you think this happened?
Rucker: You know, the immediate instinct for Republican politicians is to rally along Trump because of his intense popularity within the Republican base. But I think the leadership in Washington realizes that for the FBI to conduct this search, to take this extraordinary step, there must be something serious here, that this is not a game. I think they are trying to be careful and not get too far ahead of things because this could end up being very damaging for former President Trump.
If you are a Republican official going out there attacking the FBI and defending Trump, when, in fact, it turns out he may have had some really damaging information for the country at risk at Mar-a-Lago, then it endangers your credibility as a leader.
Alcindor: Evan, I want to come to you. In 2018, former President Trump, he increased the punishment for knowingly removing classified materials with the intent to retain an unauthorized location, making it a felony. What’s the timeline there when you think sort of what we’ll know about how serious this issue is for former President Trump? Whether he’s going to be charged, whether others may be charged.
What do we know? What are you hearing from your sources about what should happen here and how quickly it could happen?
Perez: Well, I think we’re going to be waiting a little while. Look, first of all, we are about to go into what is a quiet period for the Justice Department because we have the midterms coming up. And under the rules, under the regulations, generally, they try not to -- they’re supposed to not do things that could interfere with the election.
And we have Merrick Garland, who’s the attorney general, and he’s absolutely going to follow that rule.
So, I think for a while, we are not going to hear very much. Probably what we’re going to hear from more is from the Trump side because, he, of course, is -- as you guys have been talking, he looks at this in a different -- through a different lens.
One of the interesting things I think, you know, that we saw from these documents -- you notice that the people doing this investigation are actually in the Washington field office. Now, these are the same people who are also doing the investigation, the FBI office is also handling the January 6 investigation.
So, you have to think this is not an investigation in a vacuum, right? This very well could end up being -- there could be information, we don’t know. But there could be information that they retrieve from the search that ends up feeding into the other investigation.
So, the former president has a lot of legal issues ahead of him. And in the end, I think they are all connected, to be honest. I think they are going to be connected because they are all having to do with the process by which he left Washington at the end of his presidency, unwillingly of course, because he believes he won, right?
So, in the end, I think this is all going to be interconnected and probably a while before we know the final answer.
Alcindor: Well, I mean, that is really striking and very, very important information.
Robert, you wanted to jump in so I’m going to go to you with this. I know you are outside Trump Tower, outside in New York when Attorney General Merrick Garland was making this announcement. Can you talk a bit about what you are hearing about how this might impact former President Trump possibly running for office? We are hearing he could announce as early as next month. I mean, I know you’re nodding your head, so let me ask you on that.
Costa: Yamiche, it was such a historic week, to have someone who almost landed on the Supreme Court who’s known for his low-key personality, Merrick Garland, the attorney general, step out and talk about an ongoing investigation about a former president and an FBI raid -- a search at his home. This is something we just haven’t seen in American history.
And so, it’s hard to say exactly how it’s going to affect the former president’s possible 2024 presidential ambitions, but it’s clear that his inner -- inside his inner circle, people are urging him to make an announcement perhaps even before the midterm elections. But some other Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have been pretty muted about what this all means politically.
They know Trump has a lot of political capital in the party, to but they are waiting to see how exactly this plays out and what the evidence is in this probe.
Alcindor: And, Evan, I’ll come back to you. We’re talking -- Bob is talking about how this might play out. I talked to some people who said the DOJ, inside the DOJ, there are people who want to see Merrick Garland come out and really defend the institution and defend themselves.
But there are also some people who told me they are worried maybe the DOJ might not have the goods, might not -- what might happen if there might be political fallout here for the DOJ if Trump isn’t charged, if there isn’t sort of a more serious second chapter to this.
What are you hearing? Take us inside the DOJ.
Perez: No, I think absolutely right. I think both of those things you hear, and I think there’s a lot of concern certainly I think at the Justice Department. They have been attacked by the people who worked -- the people who work there have been under attack from Donald Trump obviously since he came down that escalator, right, before he ran -- when he was announcing to run for president.
So, you do hear both concerns that you could end up -- this could end up ensuring that Donald Trump returns to the White House. In the end, though, I think the people who work there, they believe that, you know, they’ve got to follow the law. They’ve got to figure out whether there is a violation here and whether there is a case they can bring.
Not only this one but also having to do with the effort to impede the peaceful transfer of power. Those are two various things that they just feel the cannot turn away from.
And, yeah, I mean, they were very concerned for a while because the former president had to feel to himself for about 72 hours, setting the narrative, saying that there was evidence granted.
So, I think by and large, they view that it was important for the attorney general to go out and say something.
Alcindor: And we have only a couple minutes left, but we have to talk about two other big things. Trump pled the Fifth in a separate investigation, Phil. What do you make of that?
Rucker: Well, my immediate thought is thinking back to all those political rallies in his campaign when he would mock other people for pleading the Fifth and he pleaded the fifth so many times in succession earlier this week in that New York courtroom.
Look, it’s a sign that he’s not willing to cooperate with this investigation into his business is, but it’s a reminder that he’s on legal jeopardy on multiple fronts, in New York for his businesses, in D.C., not only for the use of classified documents but for the fake electors scheme, and down in Georgia where the state authorities are honing in a very serious way regarding his handling of the election aftermath there.
Alcindor: And, Phil, we would maybe be talking about this big bill that the Democrats got across the finish line except we have all this news to cover. So, where does this leave President Biden and Democrats who really wanted to spend this week taking a victory lap?
Rucker: It’s a giant question mark, frankly. I mean, this has been probably the best 10 days of Biden’s presidency in sometime, and yet, it’s been washed out of the headlines because of this Trump investigation. I think the question for Democrats is can they build on the accomplishments of this bill to message to voters who are very concerned about the economy, obviously, and concerned about a number of fronts as well.
So, what that looks like and the campaign context after Labor Day when the messages start to hit the airwaves.
Alcindor: In the last 30 seconds, to you, what do you think of this where this is politically with Biden and Trump and Biden now in the news?
Costa: To build on Phil’s point, as reporters, I think we need to be careful because we could not have predicted what happened in Kansas in recent weeks with the vote supporting the position on abortion rights. We didn’t see the former president was going to invoke the Fifth and have an FBI search at his home.
We don’t know what’s on the horizon necessarily. We know the kitchen table issues like the economy always front and center but in a tumultuous political time like this, I’m holding back on any predictions.
Well, thank you so much to Evan, and to Bob, to Phil, for joining us and for sharing your reporting.