Judge grants Trump offer of special document search master

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a legal victory for former President Donald Trump, a federal judge on Monday granted his special master’s request review documents seized by the FBI from its House in Florida and temporarily halted the Justice Department’s use of the records for investigative purposes.

U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon’s decision authorizes an outside legal expert to review the records taken from the August 8 search and to weed out anything from the rest of the investigation that could be protected by claims of professional secrecy or executive privilege. Some of those cases could ultimately be sent back to Trump, but the judge deferred ruling on that matter.

order came over strong objections from the Department of Justice, who said a special master’s degree was not needed in part because officials had already completed their review of potentially privileged documents. The ministry said on Monday it was reviewing the decision but did not say if and when it might appeal.

The order almost certainly slows the pace of the department’s investigation into the presence of top secret information at Mar-a-Lago, especially given the judge’s directive that the Justice Department cannot at this time use any of the documents seized as part of its investigation into the storage of government secrets on Florida property. The injunction is in place until the yet-to-be-appointed special master completes his work, or until “a further court order”.

“The Court is mindful that the restrictions on criminal prosecution are disadvantaged, but believes that these unprecedented circumstances call for a brief pause to allow neutral third-party review to ensure a fair process with adequate safeguards,” Cannon wrote. , a Trump appointee. in its 24-page order.

Even then, it is not clear that the decision will pose a long-term impediment to the progress of the investigation or significantly affect investigative decisions or the final outcome of the investigation. And one separate assessment by the U.S. intelligence community of the risk posed by the apparent mishandling of classified documents will continue under the judge’s order.

“While this is a victory for the former president, it is by no means a landslide victory for him,” said David Weinstein, a Florida criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor for the Department of Justice. Justice, in an e-mail. “Although this is a setback for the government, it is not a devastating loss for them either.”

He noted, for example, that the judge did not immediately order the documents seized back from Trump or suppress any of the evidence.

Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said Monday that “the United States is reviewing the notice and will consider appropriate next steps in the ongoing litigation.” A lawyer for Trump did not respond to a request for comment.

The department and Trump’s attorneys must submit a list of proposed special master nominees by Friday.

In August, FBI agents seized approximately 11,000 documents and 1,800 other items from Mar-a-Lago as part of a criminal investigation into the withholding of national defense information there, as well as efforts to obstruct the investigation. About 100 of the documents contained classification marks.

Trump’s attorneys had argued that a special master, usually an outside attorney or former judge, was needed to ensure an independent review of records taken in the search and so that any personal information or documents could be screened and returned to Trump.

In this case, the files seized “include medical documents, correspondence relating to taxes and accounting information”, specified the order of the judge.

Cannon said it was too early to know whether Trump will be entitled to the return of any of the documents, but “at this time, the circumstances surrounding the seizure in this case and the associated need for adequate procedural safeguards are sufficiently compelling. to at least get Plaintiff outside the courthouse gates.”

She also said she found persuasive his lawyers’ arguments that he faced “potentially irreparable harm” by being denied access to records that might be of personal interest to him. She said the investigative process had, so far, been “closed” to her.

“Based on the applicant’s former position as President of the United States, the stigma associated with entering the subject is unique,” Cannon wrote. “A future indictment, based in any degree on property that should be returned, would result in reputational damage of a decidedly different order of magnitude.”

The Justice Department had opposed the appointment, saying it was unnecessary because it had already reviewed potentially confidential documents and identified a limited subset that could be covered by solicitor-client privilege.

The department had used a separate “privilege review team” for this work, but Cannon cited at least two instances in which investigative team members were “exposed” to potentially privileged material, which , she said, raised questions about the adequacy of the process. .

The department had also said that Trump was not entitled to the return of any of the presidential records that were seized since he is no longer president and therefore the documents do not belong to him. And the personal items that were recovered were mixed with classified information, giving them potential probative value, the department said.

Although prosecutors argued that Trump, as a former president, had no legal basis to assert executive privilege over the documents, the judge said he was entitled to raise it as a concern and authorized the special master to search for documents that could be covered by this privilege.

“The main sticking point, I think, is that the executive privilege documents were included” in the judge’s ruling, said Florida criminal defense attorney Richard Serafini, a former Justice Department prosecutor.

Cannon, who was nominated by Trump in 2020, had signaled last month that she was keen on appointing a special master and did so again during arguments last week, asking at one point, “In the end After all, what’s the harm in appointing a special master to sort out these issues without creating undue delay? »


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