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News brief: Mar-a-Lago warrant, FBI office attacked, New CDC COVID guidance

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

After days of silence, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced he wants to make the Mar-a-Lago search warrant public and submitted a request to a federal court to release it. Former President Trump says he wants the documents to be made public immediately, even though he could release them himself at any time.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The search of the Florida estate sparked outrage from Trump loyalists. The violent rhetoric that followed may have inspired an attack on a Cincinnati FBI office Thursday. We're going to bring you different angles this morning on the story surrounding the unprecedented search of former President Trump's residence at Mar-a-Lago. We're going to hear the latest on the FBI search warrant and learn more about the man that tried to storm that FBI office in Cincinnati.

FADEL: We'll start with NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. He joins us now. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So days of silence and Attorney General Garland speaks. What did he say yesterday?

LUCAS: So this was a very considered statement from Garland before the cameras - worth noting that he didn't take any questions. But he did say that he personally approved the decision to seek the search warrant of Mar-a-Lago. He said it was not a decision that was made lightly. Of course, it's a decision that was also approved ultimately by a federal judge who had to sign off on the warrant. But importantly, Garland said, the department, as you said, is now asking a federal court in Florida to unseal the search warrant and the property receipt, which is basically a list of what was seized. And Garland, in his understated way, pointedly noted, as you did, that a copy of both of those documents were given as required by law to Trump's lawyers the day of the search. And Trump could have made those public. Clearly, he has not done so. Now the Justice Department is asking to unseal them, although it has given Trump the opportunity to object to the release. Overnight, though, Trump said on social media that he does not oppose that happening.

FADEL: OK. So if these documents, the search warrant, the property receipt are released, what could we, the public, learn from them?

LUCAS: Well, the warrant would usually say what crimes the FBI is investigating. The property receipt, which is kind of like an inventory, will give us a list of what the agents found at Mar-a-Lago. It probably won't be in great detail. It won't be page by page or anything, but it will give the public a general idea of what was found. And remember, in this case, we know that the Justice Department is investigating what the National Archives had said is the discovery of classified documents that ended up at Mar-a-Lago after Trump left office. But we don't know exactly what the FBI were searching for there. So if the warrant and this inventory are released, we'll have a much clearer sense of what this is all about. It won't be perfect clarity but certainly better.

FADEL: Now, the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago on Monday, and it wasn't until yesterday, Thursday afternoon, that Garland spoke. Why now?

LUCAS: Well, there's been a ton of public attention on this search of Mar-a-Lago. It was unprecedented, as you said, for the FBI to do this, to carry out a court-authorized search of a former president's home. Garland acknowledged, as I said, that it was a weighty decision for him to make, and he did kind of address the why now. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERRICK GARLAND: The department filed the motion to make public the warrant and receipt in light of the former president's public confirmation of the search, the surrounding circumstances and the substantial public interest in this matter.

LUCAS: Now, Garland is very much a by-the-book kind of guy, and he said, look, the Justice Department speaks through court filings. And in court, often that means that the Justice Department can't say anything about an ongoing investigation. But in this case, as you heard him say there, Trump is the one who confirmed this search to the public. There's great interest in this Mar-a-Lago search, and the department can talk about it by unsealing these documents. And it's going to do it all in a by-the-book kind of way.

FADEL: Now, Trump has denounced this search at Mar-a-Lago, and many of his Republican allies have slammed the FBI and the Justice Department. How did Garland push back against this?

LUCAS: So Garland talked about what he called unfounded attacks on the professionalism of FBI agents and federal prosecutors. And he defended both the FBI and the Justice Department. He said the people who work there are patriotic public servants. FBI Director Christopher Wray had a similar message in a statement that he put out as well yesterday. He said such attacks on the FBI's integrity chip away at respect for the rule of law. And he noted the violent threats against law enforcement and how much of a concern that is.

FADEL: NPR's Ryan Lucas, thanks so much.

LUCAS: Thank you.

FADEL: As we just heard, the attorney general used his public statement to defend the integrity and professionalism of the FBI, which has come under fierce criticism from supporters of Trump.

MARTINEZ: And as he was condemning violent threats against the agency, FBI agents and local police in Cincinnati were responding to an attempted attack on an FBI office.

FADEL: NPR's Tom Dreisbach is following this story and joins us now with the latest. Good morning.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So what do we know about what happened?

DREISBACH: Well, NPR confirmed with law enforcement sources that the suspect's name here is Ricky Shiffer. Records indicate he's 42 years old. Now, according to the FBI, he was armed when he tried to enter this FBI building in Cincinnati. An alarm went off in the visitor screening center. FBI special agents responded. The man then fled. The Ohio State Highway Patrol said he was driving a Ford Crown Victoria. There was a chase. Eventually, they came to a stop by the side of the road in a rural area. Gunman shot at the police and took cover behind the car. For about the next six hours, there was a standoff, unsuccessful attempts at negotiation. And then in the afternoon, police claim that he raised a gun. Police then shot and killed him.

FADEL: Now, we've seen a lot of this violent rhetoric that's been going on for the past few days. But what do we know, if anything, about what motivated him?

DREISBACH: That's right. It's still very early, but there are some possible indications. There are social media accounts under his name - though he can't independently confirm they belong to him - but they indicate that he was with pro-Trump protesters outside the Capitol during the attack on January 6, though he has not been charged in connection with the riot. Since the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago this week, this account posted many times on the Trump-backed social media site Truth Social. And not long after Shiffer was identified in this incident yesterday, the account was deactivated, but we were able to get screenshots of many of the posts this account sent.

FADEL: OK. So social media accounts that are under his name, what else did they say?

DREISBACH: Well, this account on Truth Social indicated specifically he wanted to cause violence in response to the FBI's search of Mar-a-Lago. It said, quote, "I am proposing war" and, quote, "kill the FBI on site." He compared the FBI to the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police. He referenced other motivations, including the Alex Jones defamation case, that Steve Bannon, White House adviser, might go to jail for contempt of Congress - former White House adviser. He said that, quote, "1776 was for far less." And shortly after the attack on the FBI office, this account posted, "I thought I had a way through bulletproof glass, and I didn't. If you don't hear from me, it's true. I tried attacking the FBI."

FADEL: Kind of a confession if these belong to him. Where does this fit in with some of the violent and extremist rhetoric we've seen since the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago?

DREISBACH: Yeah. I mean, this week, I happened to be speaking with extremism researchers about what they're seeing. And it's a lot of similar talk about arming up, another civil war. It's very similar, they say, to what we saw just before January 6. And it's not just from the fringe. Steve Bannon, that former White House adviser, went on Alex Jones' show and compared the FBI to the Gestapo. He said, without any apparent basis, that the government might be planning to kill Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE BANNON: I do not think it's beyond this administrative state and their deep state apparatus to actually try to work on the assassination of President Trump.

DREISBACH: Bannon said it was time for action. He specifically said not to be violent. But before yesterday's attack, I spoke with Alex Friedfeld to the Anti-Defamation League. He said Bannon was playing a dangerous game.

ALEX FRIEDFELD: When you tell a story like that of the other side being willing to go to any lengths to harm the country, they're essentially laying the dots out there for their listeners to connect. And when you connect those dots, it becomes far more plausible to use violence.

DREISBACH: Now, Steve Bannon told NPR in a statement that his show's mantra is, quote, "investigate, litigate, incarcerate." He said, "there is no reason or place for violence as we have the votes and the political muscle to win elections."

FADEL: NPR's Tom Dreisbach, thank you so much.

DREISBACH: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Americans are getting new advice on how to live with COVID-19.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed some of its guidance on what to do when you've been exposed to COVID and how schools handle the virus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRETA MASSETTI: Regardless of vaccination status, we are no longer recommending quarantine after an exposure.

MARTINEZ: That's Greta Massetti, a top CDC official. Now, the aim is to simplify COVID rules, as many states have already done.

FADEL: NPR health reporter Pien Huang joins us now to discuss. Good morning, Pien.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So what exactly is the CDC changing?

HUANG: Well, a few key things. As you just heard, the CDC is no longer recommending quarantine for people who get exposed to the virus. Remember, that's when you've just been around someone who gets COVID, but you yourself don't have any symptoms. So they're saying in that situation, you should mask, but so long as you feel fine, you can go about your life. And that's a change they're bringing into schools as well. So now there's no need to quarantine or take special measures unless you're actively sick. So that effectively means they're ending what's known as test to stay, which was a strategy where kids who got exposed to COVID could still go to school if they tested negative. Now, no tests are needed so long as they're feeling fine. And this, along with a few other changes, shows that the CDC just doesn't think it's important or practical to keep finding asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic cases. With this guidance as well, they're not giving different advice anymore for vaccinated and unvaccinated people. What they're focusing on instead is isolating people who are actively sick and stopping serious illness.

FADEL: What's been the reaction to these changes?

HUANG: Well, it's mixed. I mean, dealing with COVID in schools has been controversial, and some worry that this is going too far. But overall, the reaction skews towards positive. Many people told me that this makes sense given where we're at. Dr. Marcus Plescia from the Association for State and Territorial Health Officials says that the new CDC guidance shifts the burden towards individuals figuring out their own levels of risk and how they want to deal with it.

MARCUS PLESCIA: And I think that is consistent because where we are with the pandemic right now, I don't really think there are many state or local jurisdictions that are feeling that they're going to need to start making mandates about, you know, social interactions and wearing masks.

HUANG: And he says that that's how public health deals with flu. Every year, they encourage people to get vaccinated. They give tips on how to avoid getting it or spreading it. But they're not closing schools down or requiring mask wearing to stop every case.

FADEL: OK. But this is a big change. How did the CDC justify relaxing its COVID rules?

HUANG: Well, they said that we're in a place where most people in the U.S. have at least some protection from the virus. Here's Greta Massetti, the senior CDC official again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MASSETTI: High levels of population immunity due to vaccination and previous infection, and the many available tools to protect the general population and protect people at higher risk, allow us to focus on protecting people from serious illness from COVID-19.

HUANG: That 95% of people in the U.S. have either gotten vaccinated or have recovered from COVID or both. Still, we know that doesn't mean you can't catch the virus, just hopefully that you'll have a mild case. So Massetti said that there's booster shots, antivirals, special shots for the immunocompromised. There are several layers out there that can help stop many people from getting hospitalized or dying from COVID.

FADEL: NPR's Pien Huang, thank you.

HUANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.