Former FBI official details bureau’s disagreement with DOJ ahead of its Trump search

Former FBI official details bureau’s disagreement with DOJ ahead of its Trump search

In a closed-door congressional interview last week, the official who led the FBI’s Washington Field Office at the time of its Mar-a-Lago search detailed a disagreement between bureau and Justice Department officials over how to recover sensitive papers that former President Donald Trump held onto after leaving office.

Steven D’Antuono, who left his FBI post late last year for the private sector, outlined the FBI-DOJ dispute during a private interview last week with the House Judiciary Committee, calling it “an everyday discussion” that nonetheless created “consternation” among law enforcement officials involved in the planning and execution of the Mar-a-Lago search. POLITICO reviewed portions of the transcript, which has not been released in full.

During his conversation with committee aides, D’Antuono said DOJ wanted FBI agents to immediately use a search warrant to seize documents from Mar-a-Lago, worried that any classified papers there could fall into the wrong hands. But D’Antuono’s team at the FBI’s Washington Field Office wanted to seek Trump’s permission, through the former president’s attorneys, to search the club — pointing out that Trump didn’t even spend his summers at Mar-a-Lago.

“We made comments like this — like, ‘no one is down there anyway at this point,’ right,” D’Antuono said in the interview. “It’s empty. The [former] president is gone. He was in Bedminster, or wherever he was. Let’s plan this the right way. We’ve got time.”

DOJ officials, however, feared that if Trump’s team was asked once more to turn over any remaining classified documents, those documents might disappear. So the FBI laid out a plan to surveil Mar-a-Lago in case there were signs of Trump’s team taking any of the disputed papers offsite, according to D’Antuono.

FBI officials “had a plan in place to have surveillance around if we needed to,” he said in the interview. “Again, no one was there. So if they brought in — they meaning the [former] president’s, you know, people — brought in a big box truck, we would see it, right, and we would have the search warrant in hand and be able to act at that point.”

Trump’s retention of those same sensitive documents is now at the heart of the 37-count federal felony indictment against him that was unsealed on Friday, two days after D’Antuono’s congressional interview. According to the indictment, Trump kept a trove of highly sensitive materials, including documents about overseas nuclear holdings and military plans, at his Florida club.

“There was consternation from both sides” ahead of the Mar-a-Lago search, D’Antuono told the judiciary panel. “DOJ wants stuff. We were pushing back. That’s the beauty of our system, right. It’s like, that’s the judicial system in a sense.”

He made clear, though, that the back-and-forth was “not a showdown” but merely a “general discussion.”

“So if somebody took it the other way, I’m sorry, but that’s — that was just the general discussion that we would have in every case. Every case,” D’Antuono added.

Ultimately, DOJ won out: On Aug. 8, 2022, the FBI searched the former president’s club and recovered reams of documents marked classified. That day, Trump himself was away from Mar-a-Lago. For the FBI, that was a big plus.

In fact, D’Antuono acknowledged to committee interviewers he grappled with the potential risk the Mar-a-Lago search posed to the bureau’s reputation.

“Who wants the subject of the search present at any search you do?” D’Antuono said. “You don’t normally want that, right. It just makes it easier and less of a spectacle at that point. And honestly, I didn’t want the spectacle for obvious reasons of why we’re sitting here today. … It’s a reputational risk, right, and that’s the way I looked at it from the Bureau.”

Reached for this story, D’Antuono said he preferred not to comment. A DOJ spokesperson declined to comment.

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