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How the search in Mar-a-Lago might impact the Justice Department

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

As we just heard, the Justice Department has not yet publicly commented on the FBI search of Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago home. There have been calls for DOJ to issue some sort of statement. Let's hear more now from a former Trump Justice Department official. Sarah Isgur was the director of DOJ's Office of Public Affairs, and she is now the co-host of the legal podcast "Advisory Opinions." Hey, Sarah. Thanks for being here.

SARAH ISGUR: Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: Can you offer us a little bit more insight into why you think that this Justice Department has so far been tight-lipped on what's going on here?

ISGUR: Well, it's absolutely the procedure of the Department of Justice not to comment on, confirm or deny ongoing investigation. That doesn't, of course, mean the department doesn't take steps like executing a search warrant that are seen publicly. But even at that point, you don't comment on it because imagine a situation where the department says, well, we think this person committed a crime. It would upend someone's life. And then what if they don't find any evidence of a crime? Or what if they find some evidence but not enough to sustain a prosecution or they simply don't have the resources to pursue it, even though they believe the person is guilty? This is why the department only uses its court appearances to make public statements about ongoing investigations.

SUMMERS: On Twitter, you pointed out that former President Trump could take a step and release a copy of the warrant whenever he chooses. So I wonder, to your mind, does the DOJ undermine its credibility if details don't come out? Or is the onus on former President Trump to make details known if he really thinks, as Ryan Lucas has reported, that there was not a good enough reason for the FBI to have executed this search?

ISGUR: I am surprised if all of that warrant says is that they are executing a search for potentially classified documents and that the statutory citation for the mishandling of classified documents that the former president hasn't released that copy of the cover page of the warrant. It obviously then makes us wonder whether there is other statutory citations there or other things that potentially were listed in the warrant. But, you know, the department, again, not commenting on it is exactly along the lines that the department has held for decades now. It is up to the person who was being investigated at that point. They get to speak. They get to have their day. They can release the warrant. They can not release the warrant. The department will speak when they go into court for the first time if they indict someone.

SUMMERS: The former president and his team have said they did not get a heads up, that this raid was coming ahead of yesterday. But given what we know about the department's previous probe of Trump's documents and handling of government secrets, do you think that this search warrant should have come as a surprise?

ISGUR: I mean, I am surprised because we know about this meeting in June where the department was meeting with Trump's lawyers about this very topic, where Trump had been keeping those boxes before the FBI came to pick them up and they were returned to the National Archives. That would undermine any warrant about, you know, potentially the destruction of materials where they would need a warrant, rather than a subpoena, rather than, you know, asking nicely. Which, again, makes me wonder, what exactly is in that warrant? Because if anything, that would have undermined DOJ's evidence in that affidavit to support the warrant.

SUMMERS: I want to ask you about the politics a little bit here. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is among those who support the former president's accusation that this raid was a, quote, "weaponization" of the government against former President Trump. Now, given that we do not yet know what was in the FBI's warrant, to your mind, is that a fair characterization?

ISGUR: No, because neither side should particularly be jumping to any political conclusion until we actually know what this is about. Of course, as others have pointed out, for Republicans to say they no longer care about the mishandling of classified information, that would come as news to Hillary Clinton and her campaign, of course. And at the same time, you know, this idea that because someone held public office, even the highest public office in the land, that they're somehow immune from investigation or prosecution, that's not the United States of America. That's not the rule of law. The other can be true, too, though, which is if you are going to investigate a former president to potentially bring charges against the former president, it better be real. It better be serious. They better have something. And I think we will find that out in the coming days and weeks.

SUMMERS: As you just heard NPR's Ryan Lucas tell us, this is still a very big and unprecedented step by the FBI. And some conservatives, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, are blasting this. How do you think that this is going to impact the standing, the reputation of the Justice Department, which has already seen its fair share of criticism, both when you were there during the Mueller investigation into Russian election interference, as well as criticism right now?

ISGUR: That's exactly right. Obviously, the Department of Justice, the FBI has become the focus of a political firestorm on both sides since James Comey first held that press conference about Hillary Clinton. And it's why I think both people shouldn't presume that the department did everything right here. People also shouldn't presume the department did everything wrong. You know, we have an inspector general report into the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, which is what the investigation into Donald Trump...

SUMMERS: We should just clarify here that that's the internal codename for the FBI investigation into Russian election meddling, just so listeners are clear. Go ahead.

ISGUR: That's right. And that found several really serious errors in the FISA process, including a lawyer who fabricated evidence to include in a warrant into an American citizen. So obviously, the FBI has made mistakes. They've brought some of this attention and opprobrium onto themselves. At the same time, the FBI has an incredible group of men and women. And the Department of Justice is a shining example to the rest of the world. They do make mistakes, but they also get a lot right.

SUMMERS: Sarah, in about the last 30 seconds we have left here, I'd like to ask you, in your view, how is this all - given the limited amount of detail we have now, how is this all going to play out with voters during the midterm elections?

ISGUR: Well, I think that'll depend a lot on what the Department of Justice was looking for and what evidence they actually had to go looking for it. I think at this moment, it is - Republicans have a lot of momentum on their side heading into the midterm elections, and this will further solidify Donald Trump as the leader of the party if they believe he's being targeted by the other side. On the other hand, let's see what the department has.

SUMMERS: All right. Sarah Isgur was the director of the Office of Public Affairs at the Department of Justice under former President Trump. Thanks for being here.

ISGUR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Ayen Bior
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.