WASHINGTON – Two top lawyers in Donald Trump’s White House have been interviewed by the FBI in relation to the ongoing investigation into the storage of classified documents at the former president's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, a person familiar with the matter said Tuesday.
Pat Cipollone and Patrick Philbin, who served as White House counsel and Deputy White House counsel, respectively, have spoken with the FBI. Cipollone in July also testified in front of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
The news came amid a dustup over the FBI’s seizure of Trump’s passports. The former president said on his social media channel that they had been “stolen” during the search.
The Department of Justice announced Tuesday it would return the passports, and the FBI issued a statement saying the bureau “returns items that do not need to be retained for law enforcement purposes."
New Trump Mar-a-Lago details emerge: What we know (and don't) about these classified docs
Here are the latest updates on the search:
FBI interviewed top Trump White House lawyers in document inquiry
Federal investigators interviewed former Trump White House counsel Pat Cipollone and former deputy Pat Philbin as part of the Justice Department’s inquiry into the storage of classified records at the former president’s Florida estate, a person familiar with the matter said Tuesday.
The two attorneys are the highest-ranking Trump administration officials known to have been interviewed so far in the federal probe which took a dramatic turn last week when the FBI searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property.
In that search, agents recovered 11 sets of classified records, according to documents unsealed last week.
Cipollone and Philbin were not available for comment related to their contact with federal authorities, first reported earlier Tuesday by the New York Times.
– Kevin Johnson
Cipollone was central figure in Jan. 6 committee hearings
Cipollone has been central to a series of special House committee hearings into the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, which highlighted the former counsel's clashes with Trump advisers who sought to overturn the election.
During a tense Oval Office meeting Dec. 18, 2020, according to testimony last month, Trump's personal lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, along with retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn verbally attacked White House officials, including Cipollone, who repeatedly rejected their pursuit of election fraud claims.
Cipollone also emerged as a key player in a dramatic Jan. 3, 2021 Oval Office meeting in which he and top Justice officials resisted Trump's efforts to oust then-acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen with a rogue loyalist, Jeffrey Clark, to pursue baseless allegations of voter fraud.
Rosen, acting-Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue and Steven Engel, a former assistant attorney, ultimately forced the president to step back from the brink promising mass resignations.
Donoghue testified that Cipollone was a valuable ally in Justice's resistance.
Cipollone also has been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury investigating the Capitol attack and the campaign to overturn the 2020 election.
– Kevin Johnson
Justice Department says it will return Trump's passports
Federal authorities said they would return Donald Trump’s three passports Tuesday, as the Justice Department faced rising pressure to release more details and justification for the unprecedented search of the former president’s Florida estate.
The notification about the passports came Monday in an email made public by Trump’s representatives. Jay Bratt, a top official in the Justice Department’s National Security Division, said in the email agents determined the travel documents were unrelated to the search Aug. 8 for classified documents.
"We are returning them, and they will be ready for pickup at (the Washington Field Office) at 2 pm today," Bratt wrote of the two expired passports and one active diplomatic passport.
The FBI said in a statement that in executing search warrants, the agency “follows search and seizure procedures ordered by courts, then returns items that do not need to be retained for law enforcement purposes."
Mar-a-Lago search warrant: What the warrant for Trump's residence says
Who can classify and declassify?How the government handles sensitive documents
Trump lawyer claims overreach
Trump claimed Monday the passports had been stolen. “This is an assault on a political opponent at a level never seen before in our Country,” he said in a post on Truth Social.
Christina Bobb, a Trump lawyer, said the collection of the passports showed there was overreach.
"There's no room for error," Bobb told "The Ingraham Angle" on Fox News on Monday. "So I don't give them a pass as this was a simple mistake."
The passport dispute came as questions about the search intensify. Congressional committees have asked for briefings on potential national security risks from Trump keeping “secret” and “top secret” records. House Republicans told the Justice Department to preserve documents about the search.
Media lawyers: Revealing affidavit related to Mar-a-Lago search would curb speculation
Recognizing the enormous stakes riding on an espionage investigation involving a former president, news organizations said they will continue to push for the release of a document that would reveal why the Justice Department asked to search ex-President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, media attorneys said Tuesday.
At a hearing on Thursday, attorneys for more than a dozen media companies are expected to acknowledge the U.S. Justice Department’s concerns that the release of the entire probable cause affidavit could “irreparably harm” its ongoing investigation, said attorney Martin Reeder, who represents The Palm Beach Post, which is part of the USA TODAY Network.
But media attorneys pushed back against federal prosecutors claims that the entire document should be kept from the public.
News organizations have already reported many details about key information prosecutors and FBI agents gathered that led to last week’s search of Mar-a-Lago, media attorneys said.
Rather than sealing the entire document, as prosecutors want, they will ask U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart to unseal as much information as possible.
“We want as much as can be disclosed,” Reeder said. “Anything that doesn’t damage their investigation.”
– Jane Musgrave
Expert: FBI may not have taken passports intentionally
A white-collar defense attorney and former prosecutor in the Southern District of Florida said the FBI was likely trying to retrieve classified documents and was not looking to take former President Donald Trump’s passports.
Bruce Udolf said that since the search warrant did not explicitly say the FBI was looking for the former president’s passports, they may not have been meaning to take it. Instead, “it sounds like they were mainly looking to retrieve classified documents,” he said.
“Whether it was purposeful or not,” to take the passports, Udolf said, “if they’re not going to make use of it, and it doesn’t contain evidence of a crime, they’re right to return it immediately.”
– Erin Mansfield
What we do and don't know about the classified documents at Mar-a-Lago
In the week since the FBI searched former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago home, new details have trickled out about the unprecedented investigation into a former president.
Here is what we have learned over the past week and what questions remain unanswered.
Trump took documents to his Mar-a-Lago estate when he left office in 2021.
The FBI seized 11 sets of classified documents in its search last week.
The investigation centers on possible violations of the Espionage Act of 1917 and obstruction.
Trump was holding documents in a storage facility at Mar-a-Lago
– Rick Rouan
Judge sets hearing on whether to unseal Trump search affidavit
The Florida federal magistrate who signed off the search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate has set a Thursday hearing to weigh arguments on whether to unseal the government’s affidavit supporting the search.
The Justice Department opposed unsealing the affidavit, saying it could harm its continuing investigation. But Trump called for the "immediate release" of the unredacted affidavit, in a post on Truth Social.
U.S. Magistrate Bruce Reinhart scheduled a hearing at 1 p.m. Thursday, when a consortium of media organizations are expected to argue for the release of the document.
Threats toward FBI, law enforcement surge after Mar-a-Lago search
Even before the FBI executed a search warrant on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property, the ex-president's supporters on the far-right, who had spent a year after the Jan. 6 insurrection quietly stewing, began ramping up threats.
But since Trump announced last week that the FBI had raided him, across the internet, experts on extremism have seen a spike in violent and hateful rhetoric directed towards the federal government in general and the FBI specifically. Given the potentially limitless reach of internet pundits, whose message can connect with even one lone person prone to violence, they worry the possibility of attacks will only increase.
“We haven’t seen this level of real mobilization to potential violence since the mid-90s,” said Javed Ali, associate professor of practice at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan and a former senior counterterrorism official at DHS. “This is really disturbing, and I know firsthand from my colleagues back at the FBI that they’re taking this as seriously as they should be — it’s very upsetting to them.”
The early- to mid-1990s saw violence and angry rhetoric directed at the federal government following two tragic events: the botched raid of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and a standoff and shooting between federal agents and the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge in Idaho. The two events, which still inspire domestic extremists today, helped fuel an anti-government movement that culminated in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 — the most deadly domestic terrorism incident in U.S. history.
The Mar-a-Lago search, and the corresponding investigation of Trump, is being viewed as a similar overreach, experts said.
– Will Carless, Ella Lee
DOJ opposes release of affidavit justifying search
Despite releasing the search warrant Friday, the Justice Department on Monday opposed releasing the affidavit that explained to a judge the probable cause that a crime was committed, to justify the search.
News organizations had filed a motion in federal court to make public the affidavit, which would shed new light on the department's investigation into Trump’s alleged removal of classified documents from the White House.
But the department said unsealing the affidavit “would "irreparably harm the government's ongoing criminal investigation." Releasing the information would be "highly likely to compromise future investigative steps" and could "chill future cooperation by witnesses" in this investigation and others in the future, the department argued.
Trump called Monday in a post on Truth Socalfor the "immediate release" of the affidavit, but his lawyers haven’t replied formally to the filing.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart hasn’t ruled on the release yet.
Congress presses for information about search
Two congressional panels –the House Intelligence and Oversight and Reform committees – have asked for a briefing from the director of national security about potential risks from documents stored at Mar-a-Lago.
The head of the Intelligence panel, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said the documents could lead to "extremely grave damage to national security" if disclosed.
Republican lawmakers want to learn more about what justified the search.
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor, said the unprecedented search needed unprecedented justification. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said the Justice Department must lay out its case to "show that this was not just a fishing expedition."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: FBI interviewed Trump lawyers in document investigation - live updates