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The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

What went down in the FBI’s Trump search

The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

Welcome to The Daily 202! Tell your friends to sign up here. On this day in 1995, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were charged with 11 counts stemming from their April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

The big idea

What went down in the FBI’s Trump search

If you’re trying to make sense of the FBI’s dramatic decision to execute a search warrant at former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in Florida, you’re hardly alone. What were they looking for? Why? What did they find? The Daily 202 shares lots of your questions.

Rather than scan social media to see what newly minted legal experts — the same Wikipedia wizards who confidently expounded on monkeypox before that, and Taiwan before that, and the economy before that, and covid before that — we figured we’d talk to someone who knows.

So we sat down (metaphorically) with our colleague Devlin Barrett, who writes about the FBI and the Justice Department and who wrote “October Surprise: How the FBI Tried to Save Itself and Crashed an Election” about the agency’s impact on the 2016 White House race.

You can find Devlin’s work through his author page here. Our conversation has been lightly edited.

The Daily 202: What was searched? By whom?

Devlin Barrett: FBI agents searched storage space at his Mar-a-Lago property in Florida and at least some of Trump’s personal residence, including opening his safe, according to people familiar with the matter.

D202: Do we know what they were looking for?

Devlin: The agents were looking for possible classified material or documents and other items that may qualify under the law as presidential records. [Our Presidential Records Act explainer is here.]

D202: How would the authorities normally go about getting a search warrant? Do they need to show a likelihood of criminal activity?

Devlin: A search warrant is designed to look where investigators have reason to believe they may find evidence of a crime. In the case of searches for classified material, a secondary goal is to return any such material to government possession. By itself, a search warrant is not proof of anything; it means investigators have convinced a judge there is a good reason to search something as they investigate a possible crime.

D202: There are obvious political dimensions here, but are there particular sensitivities from the perspective of law enforcement because of whose property was searched?

Devlin: The Justice Department tries to apply strict oversight to politically sensitive cases, and few cases are more sensitive than a court-approved search of a once and potentially future president. The Justice Department and FBI are still very much aware of the misjudgments those agencies made during the 2016 election, and the years of criticism that followed. They’d very much like to avoid repeating similar mistakes.

D202: What about relative proximity to the midterm elections? Are there rules about what the FBI or Department of Justice can or can’t do 90 days or so out?

Devlin: The Justice Department has a loosely defined rule that it should avoid taking overt actions in the 60 days before an election that could alter one candidate or another’s chances of victory. The practice is open to internal differences of interpretation, however. However it is applied, most law enforcement officials agree it doesn’t really kick in until September, for a November election. And it is not absolute — if a politician were to commit a heinous crime in broad daylight in October, they wouldn’t wait until after the election to act.

D202: You’ve covered this world for a while now. What are some of the outstanding questions to which you want answers?

Devlin: The biggest question to me is what, if any, classified information was still at Mar-a-Lago this year — after 15 boxes were returned to the government — and why. The rules of classified information are opaque and, at times, somewhat subjective. And while a sitting president is the ultimate classification authority in the government, that authority does not carry over to ex-presidents. But classification rules can also be applied as a bureaucratic cudgel for bickering and turf fights within the government, so the specifics of what they found at Mar-a-Lago will be key.

What’s happening now

Iranian charged in alleged plot to kill ex-Trump adviser John Bolton

“The Justice Department has charged a member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in connection with a plot to murder former Trump national security adviser John Bolton, accusing him of attempting to pay individuals $300,000 to kill Bolton in D.C. or Maryland,” Perry Stein reports.

  • The suspect, Shahram Poursafi, 45, remains at large abroad, the Justice Department said. If found and convicted, he would face up to 10 years imprisonment and a fine up to $250,000 for the use of interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder-for-hire, and up to 15 years imprisonment and a fine up to $250,000 for providing and attempting to provide material support to a transnational murder plot.”

Trump says he will not answer questions in New York civil probe of his business practices, citing Fifth Amendment rights

“Former president Donald Trump arrived at the office of the New York attorney general Wednesday morning to give sworn testimony in a long-running civil probe of his business dealings, specifically his representations to lenders and tax agencies about the value of his assets,” Shayna Jacobs reports.

“In a lengthy statement, Trump denied wrongdoing, accused the U.S. government of unfairly targeting him and said he would refuse to answer questions, citing his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.”

Inflation eased in July from a year ago, as energy prices fell off summer peaks

“July inflation climbed 8.5 percent over the past year, easing slightly thanks to falling gas and energy prices and raising new hopes that inflation will continue to simmer down,” Rachel Siegel reports.

“In one of the most encouraging signs in more than a year, inflation in July was also flat from the month before, as a major drop-off in gasoline prices helped offset increases in food and shelter.”

Republicans hold Minnesota House seat as Finstad wins special election

“Republican Brad Finstad, a former state lawmaker, has won the special election for Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District, defeating Democrat Jeff Ettinger in a closely watched race,” Eugene Scott reports.

“The seat had been held by Rep. Jim Hagedorn (R-Minn.), who died in February after a battle with kidney cancer.”

Lunchtime reads from The Post

Facebook bans hate speech but still makes money from white supremacists

“Facebook has long banned content referencing white nationalism. But a plethora of hate groups still populate the site, and the company boosts its revenue by running ads on searches for these pages,” Naomi Nix reports.

“A new report from the Tech Transparency Project, a nonprofit tech watchdog, found 119 Facebook pages and 20 Facebook groups associated with white supremacy organizations. Of 226 groups identified as white-supremacist organizations by the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and a leaked version of Facebook’s dangerous organizations and individuals list, more than a third have a presence on the platform, according to the study.”

Raid watch

Mar-a-Lago search appears focused on whether Trump, aides withheld items

“After Monday’s search, lawyers close to Trump sought advice or recommendations of criminal defense lawyers who could represent Trump, said a person familiar with the lawyers. According to this person, the lawyers said the warrant was related to allegations that classified information was retained by Trump,” Devlin Barrett, Josh Dawsey, Rosalind S. Helderman, Jacqueline Alemany and Spencer S. Hsu report.

… and beyond

Judge who approved FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search represented clients linked to Jeffrey Epstein

“The federal magistrate judge who signed off on the warrant that allowed federal agents to search former President Donald Trump’s Florida residence once drew scrutiny for switching from his job as a federal prosecutor to working as a defense attorney on behalf of individuals connected to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein,” Politico’s Gary Fineout reports.

  • “The judge, known for his ‘meticulous’ nature, is also well-respected within the Palm Beach legal community and had once worked in the Justice Department’s public integrity section. He had contributed to both Democrat and Republican candidates.”

After Mar-a-Lago search, users on pro-Trump forums agitate for ‘civil war’ — including a Jan. 6 rioter

“Some users on pro-Trump internet forums told users to ‘lock and load,’ agitated for civil war and urged protesters to head to Mar-a-Lago in the hours after news broke that the FBI searched former President Donald Trump’s Florida compound on Monday,” NBC News’s Ben Collins and Ryan J. Reilly report.

“One user posting about the ‘civil war’ shortly after the search was Tyler Welsh Slaeker, a Washington state man awaiting sentencing for storming the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, according to previous research and statements posted online.”

The Biden agenda

Biden signs bill to aid veterans exposed to toxins from burn pits

“President Biden on Wednesday signed into law bipartisan legislation to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, calling it a long overdue step toward fulfilling the country’s ‘truly sacred obligation’ of caring for its veterans,” Amy B Wang and Paul Kane report.

“This is the most significant law our nation has ever passed to help millions of veterans who are exposed to toxic substances during their military services,” Biden said. “I was going to get this done, come hell or high water.”

Biden, trying to tout his policies, faces a familiar intruder: Trump

“For much of his presidency, Biden has had a hard time competing for attention with the predecessor he calls ‘The Former Guy,’ the one who left office a year-and-a-half ago but never really left the public consciousness. The news is often not particularly positive for Trump — revelations about his presidency, congressional testimony and hearings, legal rulings and complications — but it can nonetheless eclipse Biden’s ability to deliver his message and command public attention,” Matt Viser writes.

Gas is suddenly cheaper. That could help Biden.

“The Biden administration on Tuesday got some much-needed good news on inflation: Online consumer prices dropped in July — the first time in more than two years that’s happened,” Politico’s Sam Sutton and Victoria Guida report.

“It’s another early sign that the white-hot inflation that has plagued the economy for more than a year could be abating as the Federal Reserve aggressively raises interest rates.”

Biden taps first woman to lead National Cancer Institute

“President Biden on Wednesday tapped Harvard cancer surgeon Monica Bertagnolli as the new director of the National Cancer Institute, making her the first woman to hold a post previously held by 15 men,” John Wagner and Mariana Alfaro report.

Abortion rates across the nation, visualized

“Abortion rates vary greatly across the country, in part because of access to clinics and other barriers erected by state legislatures,” Harry Stevens, Aaron Steckelberg, Dan Keating and Bonnie Berkowitz report.

Hot on the left

Democrats more hopeful in midterms — but brace for GOP spending surge

“In state after state, Democrats have been putting to work their enormous financial advantages to define their Republican opponents in the mind of voters, despite an unpopular president and historic economic head winds,” Michael Scherer and Annie Linskey report.

But strategists for both parties expect the dynamic to shift now that primary campaigns have all but concluded, as Republicans seek to recover from brutal intraparty fights and begin to close the gap in spending — setting up what all expect to be a nail-biter of a fall campaign over the fate of a 50-50 Senate and the prospect of a new governing majority for Republicans in the House.”

Hot on the right

Fox boss Lachlan Murdoch privately levels harsh criticism against Trump, sources tell CNN

“Fox News largely refrains from criticizing Donald Trump. But, in private, Lachlan Murdoch has denounced some of the former President’s behavior in harsh terms,” CNN's Oliver Darcy reports.

“In private this year, the Fox Corp. chief executive has freely criticized Trump, saying that he disagrees with much of the way the former President behaves, sources tell me. Murdoch has gone so far as to tell people that he believes if Trump were to run again, it would be bad for the country, I’m told.”

Today in Washington

At 12:30 p.m., the president and first lady Jill Biden will depart the White House for Charleston, S.C., where they are scheduled to arrive at 2:30 p.m.

In closing

When a government safe was raided — to fund the Pony Express illegally

“At about 9 p.m. on a Saturday in late December 1860, Interior Secretary Jacob Thompson rushed to his department’s D.C. headquarters to inspect a safe that held bonds and stocks for Native American tribes. The safe key was missing. So Thompson sent for a blacksmith, who smashed the iron safe open with a sledgehammer,” Ronald G. Shafer writes.

“Thompson had heard that hundreds of thousands of dollars in stocks and bonds had been secretly removed and ‘loaned’ to an unknown official. To his shock, the securities were indeed missing from the safe. The recipient turned out to be the president of the Pony Express, who had used the bonds to raise operating money for the private mail service.”

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.

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