Attorney General Merrick B. Garland moved on Thursday to make public the legal authorization for the F.B.I.’s search of former President Donald J. Trump’s home in Florida, which was carried out as part of the government’s effort to account for documents that one person briefed on the matter said related to some of the most highly classified programs run by the United States.
Mr. Garland said he had personally approved the search after the failure of “less intrusive” attempts to retrieve material taken from the White House by Mr. Trump.
Mr. Garland provided no details. But the person briefed on the matter said investigators had been concerned about material from what the government calls “special access programs,” a designation even more classified than “top secret” that is typically reserved for extremely sensitive operations carried out by the United States abroad or for closely held technologies and capabilities.
Government officials have expressed concern that allowing highly classified materials to remain at Mr. Trump’s home could leave them vulnerable to efforts by foreign adversaries to acquire them, according to another person familiar with the Justice Department’s thinking.
In a clipped, two-minute statement to reporters at the Justice Department’s headquarters, Mr. Garland said he decided to break his silence and make a public statement because Mr. Trump had disclosed the action himself. The attorney general also cited the “surrounding circumstances” of the case and the “substantial public interest in this matter.”
But Mr. Garland also used the brief appearance to defend, at least implicitly, the Justice Department’s handling of the case against the torrent of criticism directed at it by Mr. Trump and his allies.
“Upholding the rule of law means applying the law evenly, without fear or favor,” Mr. Garland said. “Under my watch that is precisely what the Justice Department is doing.”
Minutes before Mr. Garland took the podium, a top official in the Justice Department’s national security division filed a motion to unseal the search warrant and an inventory of items retrieved in the search on Monday.
While the inventory provided to Mr. Trump’s team after the search is unlikely to reveal details about the specific documents he kept, it refers to an array of sensitive material, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
Some of Mr. Trump’s aides were leaning toward opposing the motion to release the warrant and the inventory, people familiar with their discussions said, a step that could delay or block release of the material.
Judge Bruce Reinhart, the federal magistrate in the Southern District of Florida who approved the search warrant and is handling the motion to unseal it, issued an order requiring the Justice Department to serve a copy of its motion to Mr. Trump’s lawyers. It said the department must then tell the judge by 3 p.m. on Friday whether Mr. Trump opposes the motion.
Mr. Garland’s statement amounted to a challenge to Mr. Trump, who has been free to release the search warrant and the list of items taken during the search but has declined to do so. Many Trump allies and Republicans have also called on Mr. Garland to explain his decision, adding political complexity — or hypocrisy — to any decision by Mr. Trump to oppose making the search warrant public.
The Justice Department did not seek to release the affidavits — which contain much more information about the behavior of Mr. Trump and evidence presented by others — that were used to obtain the warrant.
The public statement by Mr. Garland came at an extraordinary moment, as a sprawling set of investigations into the former president on multiple fronts gained momentum even as Mr. Trump continued to signal that he might soon announce another run for the White House.
Mr. Trump invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination on Wednesday in a civil investigation into his business practices by the New York attorney general, and a close ally in the House had his phone seized by federal agents this week in one strand of the investigation into Mr. Trump’s efforts to remain in power despite his election loss in 2020.
Mr. Garland also spoke on the same day that law enforcement officers shot and killed a man who they said tried to break into the F.B.I.’s Cincinnati office on Thursday. Investigators were looking into whether he had ties to extremist groups, including one that participated in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, according to two law enforcement officials familiar with the matter.