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The Morning Dispatch: What Comes Next After Mar-a-Lago Search
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The Morning Dispatch: What Comes Next After Mar-a-Lago Search

Plus: Is Ukraine preparing for a counteroffensive against Russia?

Happy Friday! How do you get millions of people to tune in to a mid-August baseball game between two of the worst teams in the league? Plop it in the middle of a cornfield in Iowa.

(The Harry Caray hologram singing ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ was a bit uncanny-valley, though.)

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Ohio State Highway Patrol announced Thursday afternoon officers had shot and killed an armed man who allegedly tried to breach an FBI field office in Cincinnati earlier in the day. The man—whom authorities declined to name but was reportedly motivated by anger over the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago earlier this week—fled along Interstate 71 before hiding in a field and refusing to surrender, law enforcement officials said.

  • The American Automobile Associated reported Thursday that the national average price for a gallon of regular gas has dropped to $3.99—its first time below $4 since early March, and down from a record $5.02 in mid-June. Falling fuel prices were largely responsible for July’s promising inflation report, contributing to lower prices on goods across the board, including airline tickets.

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Thursday that the Producer Price Index—a measure of what suppliers and wholesalers are charging their customers—decreased 0.5 percent in July on a seasonally adjusted basis, after increasing 1 percent in June and 0.8 percent in May. On an annual basis, PPI inflation came down from record highs, but remained hot at 9.8 percent.

  • The United States issued 31,055 student visas to Chinese nationals in the first half of 2022, according to the State Department—less than half the number issued over the same period in 2019, pre-pandemic. China has been the most common origin for international students in the United States for more than a decade, but COVID-19 restrictions, deteriorating U.S.-China relations, and clampdowns on visas for Chinese students have all contributed to the plunge.

  • The Centers for Disease Control loosened much of its COVID-19 guidance on Thursday, doing away with its recommendations that schools and other community settings screen asymptomatic individuals by default, scrapping specific guidelines for unvaccinated people, replacing quarantine recommendations following COVID-19 exposure with recommendations to wear a high-quality mask for a few days.

  • The Labor Department reported Thursday that initial jobless claims—a proxy for layoffs—increased by 14,000 week-over-week to a seasonally adjusted 262,000 last week, the highest level this year and a sign the tight labor market continues to slacken.

  • A Pew Research Center study published this week found the percentage of teenagers who report “ever” using Facebook has plummeted from 71 percent in 2015 to just 32 percent today—though 62 percent say they use Instagram, which is owned by Facebook’s parent company, Meta. YouTube and TikTok are now the two most popular tech platforms among that age group.

We’re (Probably) Going to Learn (a Little Bit) More About the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago Search

Attorney General Merrick Garland. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.)

In the days following the execution of a search warrant at former President Donald Trump’s home in Palm Beach, Republican lawmakers across the ideological spectrum were united in their desire for additional information.

Sen. Bill Cassidy and Rep. Peter Meijer argued the American people deserved transparency over what went down, while Rep. August Pfluger, Rep. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sen. Mike Crapo complained about the Justice Department’s silence. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday Attorney General Merrick Garland should have already provided answers about the search, and Sen. Ted Cruz demanded Garland and FBI Director Chris Wray release the warrant supporting the probe “NOW.”

They may be on the verge of getting their wish.

To those familiar with the minutiae of federal law enforcement policy, the Justice Department’s refusal to comment on the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago in recent days was not surprising: The agency’s employee handbook makes clear DOJ personnel “shall not respond to questions about the existence of an ongoing investigation or comment on its nature or progress before charges are publicly filed.” This secrecy limits a suspect’s ability to head off an investigation by tampering with evidence or other witnesses, and it also protects suspects from potentially premature reputational damage.

The handbook makes room for exceptions to this rule, when “the community needs to be reassured that the appropriate law enforcement agency is investigating a matter” or the “release of information is necessary to protect the public safety.” Given the weightiness of Monday’s events—and all the resulting irresponsible speculation—the aforementioned Republican lawmakers likely believed a deviation from protocol was warranted in this case.

But as our Sarah Isgur—a former DOJ spokesperson—was quick to point out this week, that line of thinking is how we got former FBI Director James Comey’s reckless improvisation in the runup to the 2016 election. “Protocol exists for the times when you think, ‘Oh this should be an exception,’” she argued. “Time and again, when DOJ has made mistakes, it’s because they ignore long-standing internal precedent [because] it feels justified by the circumstances.”

Still, when the Justice Department announced Thursday afternoon that Garland would be delivering remarks at 2:30 p.m., many assumed he was about to do just that. He didn’t.

Finally stepping up to the podium a little after 3 p.m.—having forced journalists throughout D.C. to sit through half an hour of C-SPAN—Garland provided just about the sparsest possible update he could on the Department’s activities, delivering remarks that clocked under four minutes. “Federal law, longstanding Department rules, and our ethical obligations prevent me from providing further details as to the basis of the search at this time,” he said. “There are, however, certain points I want you to know.”

The attorney general went on to detail that he was personally responsible for approving the decision to seek a search warrant—disputing an earlier Newsweek report that alleged Garland had “no prior knowledge” that the search warrant would be executed—and claimed the determination was not made lightly. “Where possible, it is standard practice to seek less intrusive means as an alternative to a search,” implying the Department had no other choice in this instance—but not explaining why.

Perhaps most important, however, was Garland’s announcement that the Justice Department had filed a motion to unseal the search warrant related to “premises located in Florida” belonging to Trump. “The Department [did so] in light of the former President’s public confirmation of the search, the surrounding circumstances, and the substantial public interest in this matter,” Garland said. In a move that essentially called Trump’s bluff, the motion left an opening for the former president to object to the release of the warrant—including “Attachments A and B”—if he wanted to keep its contents from becoming public.

Trump reportedly weighed doing so, but ultimately announced—around midnight—that he wouldn’t. “Not only will I not oppose the release of documents related to the unAmerican, unwarranted, and unnecessary raid and break-in of my home in Palm Beach, Florida, Mar-a-Lago, I am going a step further by ENCOURAGING the immediate release of those documents, even though they have been drawn up by radical left Democrats and possible future political opponents,” he posted on Truth Social. “Release the documents now!” Absent from his statement was the fact that his lawyers have been in possession of said documents since Monday, and they—or he—could have released them at any point this week.

The exact timing of the warrant’s unsealing remains unclear, but the process will likely move pretty quickly given Trump’s announcement. U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart—who signed off on the warrant and has come under fire from Trump supporters for allegations of bias (he has some anti-Trump social media posts, and donated to Barack Obama and Jeb Bush’s presidential campaigns)—gave Trump’s attorneys until 3 p.m. today to formally decide whether to object to the documents’ release.

Whenever it’s made public, the warrant itself is unlikely to include information about why the FBI conducted the search at Mar-a-Lago or any other probable cause information; it’ll simply outline what kind of material agents are authorized to seize and what criminal statutes could be implicated. Garland didn’t provide any hints yesterday, either, simply saying “more information will be made available in the appropriate way and at the appropriate time.”

Presumably he didn’t mean through leaks to the Washington Post and New York Times, but the two outlets reported late last night that the Justice Department’s probe had to do with “classified documents relating to nuclear weapons” and material from “special access programs” that are “even more classified than ‘top secret’” and have to do with “extremely sensitive operations carried out by the United States abroad or for closely held technologies and capabilities.”

Earlier in the day, Trump had argued a full-fledged search of his home was unnecessary because his attorneys had been “cooperating fully” and had “very good relationships” with law enforcement officials, adding the government “could have had whatever they wanted, if we had it.” But those law enforcement officials reportedly believed the Trump team was not being fully transparent. If their concerns were truly about nuclear capabilities—either the United States’ or another country’s—that would probably explain the FBI’s sense of urgency.

Asked about those allegations—which haven’t been confirmed on-the-record by law enforcement sources—one of Trump’s attorneys, Christina Bobb, told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham she didn’t “believe” documents having to do with the United States’ nuclear capabilities were at Mar-a-Lago when the FBI agents arrived.

“Do you know for a fact?” Ingraham interjected.

“I have not specifically spoken to the president about what nuclear materials may or may not have been in there,” Bobb responded. “I do not believe there were any in there.”

A New Phase of the War in Ukraine?

More than 100 miles from the frontlines of the Russia-Ukraine war, beachgoers relaxing by the water in Crimea—a Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014—looked up on Tuesday to find the horizon blotted with smoke as explosions rocked Russia’s nearby Saky airbase. Many fled, leading to traffic jams on a bridge back to Russia.

Local officials in Crimea—installed by the Kremlin—wrote off the blasts as an ammunition accident, acknowledging only minor harm to civilian structures. But commercial satellite images suggest at least eight Russian military aircraft were destroyed—Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky put the total at nine—and several nearby buildings were damaged as well. 

Ukrainian officials have thus far played coy, neglecting to take credit for the strikes while taunting Russia about the destruction—the country’s Defense Department warned Russians that vacationing in Crimea might prove “unpleasantly hot.” But anonymous officials have privately confirmed to multiple outlets that Ukrainian special forces and resistance fighters were responsible.

If the work of the Ukrainian military, the strike sends a signal that Kyiv hasn’t yet given up on Crimea. But it may also be preparation for what seemed like a remote possibility in the early days of the war—a counteroffensive.

“We did not think that Ukraine had the capability to strike this far behind Russian lines,” Doug Klain, assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, told The Dispatch. “If it keeps doing smart and high-profile, daring strikes like this, then that’s pretty promising.”

Retaking territory in Crimea is still a remote possibility at best, but unsettling Russian forces there could pay off elsewhere. Destroyed planes can no longer harry Ukrainian troops, and the knowledge that Ukraine can hit targets in Crimea will force Russia to devote precious resources to defending that territory, which it’s used as a logistics hub.

Meanwhile, a Ukrainian counteroffensive will likely focus primarily on the southern city of Kherson. A critical port on the Black Sea and Dnipro River, Kherson was the first major city captured by Russia in the spring, and retaking it wouldn’t just represent a potent symbolic victory—it would be strategic, as well. Retaining a foothold in Kherson has given Russian forces an easier path west through Odesa, which, if captured, would cut Ukraine off from pivotal access to the Black Sea.

So what’s the plan? Ukrainian military leaders have recently increased deployments in the south, targeting bridges and other infrastructure near Kherson and weakening Russian supply lines—possibly with the goal of isolating and starving out Russian forces in the city and giving guerrilla resistance in the area time to needle the occupiers. Russia has responded by shifting troops into the region from the Donbas.

Given their different goals, Ukrainian forces have a much trickier needle to thread than their Russian counterparts. “Russia’s strategy for taking cities is effectively to bombard and destroy them until there’s very little left,” Klain said. “[Ukraine’s] strategy is dangerous, and it’s a lot more difficult. … Ukraine obviously wants to liberate its cities and does not want to destroy them, so that’s going to mean a bigger hill to climb.”

Ukraine is still receiving a steady flow of military equipment from the West. The U.S. announced a $1 billion aid package this week—its largest tranche yet, according to the Pentagon—complete with artillery ammunition, mortars, shoulder-mounted anti-tank Javelin missiles, and more. On Thursday, 26 Western countries pledged another $1.55 billion in equipment, training, and cash for the effort. “President [Vladimir] Putin would have gambled that come August, come a few months in, we would have all got bored of the conflict and the international community would have gone off in different directions,” United Kingdom Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said. “Well, today is proof of the opposite.” 

While Ukraine has been reluctant to disclose precise casualty numbers, leaders estimated in June that between 100 and 200 troops were dying per day. Yet Ukrainians’ confidence remains high: A poll conducted a few weeks ago and released Thursday—funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development—found 98 percent of Ukrainians believed they would win the war, and 91 percent approved of President Volodymyr Zelenksy’s performance.

Russia, meanwhile, is also sustaining heavy losses. “I think it’s safe to suggest that the Russians have probably taken 70,000 or 80,000 casualties in less than six months,” U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl said Monday, counting both deaths and injuries. The Associated Press reported Thursday Russian officials trying to boost their numbers by recruiting prisoners with promises of amnesty, running billboards and subway ads, and offering salary bonuses.

Whether you believe them or not—and we don’t blame you if you don’t—public opinion surveys conducted in recent months generally find a majority of Russian citizens support the war effort, and fledgling anti-war movements have been snuffed out, to put it kindly. Putin’s refusal to implement a nationwide draft—and (generally) keep the conscripts they do have out of Ukraine—probably has something to do with the conflict’s relative popularity.

“Even under a popular president, public opinion can turn quickly against a war that isn’t going well, and mass mobilization will be a screaming-sirens admission that it’s going really badly,” Stephen Sestanovich—a senior fellow of Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations—told The Dispatch. “Putin might change his mind about a mass call-up if the generals promise him a quick victory after that. But it’s hard to see them doing so—mass mobilization will give them a large number of untrained, unready conscripts.”

Meanwhile, reports that Russia is purchasing drones from Iran suggest the deepening of an ominous partnership, but also that Russia is having trouble replacing its military equipment. “Up until fairly recently, you’ve thought of Russia as primarily a net arms exporter,” Raphael Cohen—director of the RAND Corporation’s Strategy and Doctrine Program—told The Dispatch. “The fact that they’re now looking to the Iranians to provide them weapons I think is a sign that Russia is feeling taut.”

But even isolated, under-equipped Russian forces could make retaking Kherson a brutal fight. “Urban combat is inherently messy,” Cohen said. “Russians, if they wanted to, could make taking Kherson into a difficult, slow, hard slog.”

Worth Your Time

  • The Little League World Series produced a remarkable display of sportsmanship this week, when Tulsa’s Isaiah Jarvis took time to comfort a shaken Kaiden Shelton after Shelton—a pitcher for Texas East—accidentally threw the ball at Jarvis’ head. Rather than expressing outrage at the infraction—that could have resulted in serious injury—Jarvis walked to the mound and embraced Shelton, who was reeling at the damage he could have wrought. “Hey, you’re doing great. Let’s go,” Jarvis told the pitcher. “Jarvis, who’d just been hurt himself, saw someone suffering, and tried to alleviate it. It was a beautiful moment,” Matt Labash writes in yesterday’s Slack Tide. “Watching someone feel genuinely remorseful for what they did, even if it was only a mistake, was strangely refreshing. We are unaccustomed to that—we have become unaccustomed to all of this—because public life is no longer populated by people committing quiet acts of heroism and gallantry and graciousness. We have instead become acclimated to boorish jackasses stoking grievance, claiming victimhood, and pinning the blame on others when they should be assuming blame themselves.”

  • Nature TTL released the winners of their annual Photographer of the Year competition, and, as always, they’re mesmerizing. Chosen from more than 8,000 entries, the winning images depict wildlife scenes ranging from a caracal hunting flamingos, to a snow leopard stalking the peaks of the Ladakh mountain range in India, to an iced-over grizzly bear passing in front of a camera trap in Canada’s Yukon territory. Which is your favorite?

Presented Without Comment

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Toeing the Company Line

  • This week’s edition of The Current (🔒) features a roundup of a few national security stories that caught Klon’s eye this week: A jury convicting a spy for Saudi Arabia, the Treasury Department sanctioning a cryptocurrency money laundering tool, and a report showing how Western computer parts are enabling Russia’s war in Ukraine.

  • The FBI search of Mar-a-Lago is certainly unusual, but it’s not unprecedented. “We are a country that has been through federal criminal investigations involving multiple sitting presidents, their families, vice presidents, presidential candidates, Cabinet secretaries, senators, representatives, and at least one Supreme Court justice,” Chris writes in this week’s Stirewaltisms (🔒). “I’m going to throw a Strunk and White (paperback)  at the next pundit who uses the term ‘unprecedented.’”

  • On today’s episode of The Dispatch Podcast, Sarah, Jonah, and David discuss the fallout of the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search, dive into the “Inflation Reduction Act” and this week’s inflation data, and break down what we learned in this week’s primary elections.

  • On the site today, Emanuele Ottolenghi and Ivana Stradner argue that the U.S. should place additional sanctions on state-owned Russian propaganda media like Sputnik and RT, and our intern Augustus Bayard examines the ongoing difficulties around answering the question: Where did the hundreds of billions of dollars allocated by the federal government as emergency COVID funding for schools actually go?

Let Us Know

We’ve gone back and forth this week on how—and how much—to cover the Mar-a-Lago search given the amount of speculation involved at this stage.

Do you think we’ve managed to provide more light than heat? Or should we hold off until more information is available?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.