Records seized from Mar-a-Lago will go before neutral special master
Former President Donald Trump pushed for the appointment after the government seized thousands of documents from his home, many marked classified or top secret.
This image contained in a court filing by the Department of Justice on Aug. 30, 2022, and redacted by in part by the FBI, shows a photo of documents seized during the Aug. 8 search by the FBI of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Photo via U.S. Department of Justice
WASHINGTON (CN) — Delaying the investigation of classified documents seized from former President Donald Trump’s south Florida resort home, a Trump-appointed federal judge agreed with the former president Monday to appoint a special master who will review materials.
The 24-page order from U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon says the Department of Justice must stop using the seized materials for its criminal investigation until completion of a review by this neutral third party.
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While the Department of Justice had argued that appointment of a special master would unnecessarily delay its ongoing criminal investigation, Cannon determined that the risk of delay is outweighed by the potential that the department’s internal review process “will not adequately safeguard” Trump’s privileged and personal materials from exposure to either the investigative team or the media.
“The Court is mindful that restraints on criminal prosecutions are disfavored but finds that these unprecedented circumstances call for a brief pause to allow for neutral, third-party review to ensure a just process with adequate safeguards,” Cannon wrote.
Trump is under investigation for removing government records from the White House at the end of his single term as president on Jan. 20, 2021, and storing them at his 12-acre estate in West Palm Beach.
According to records unsealed by the court last month, the FBI took about 20 boxes of documents, including 11 sets of classified records, from Mar-a-Lago on Aug. 8. Among the seized materials were the grant of clemency to the former president’s close ally Roger Stone, binders of photos and what is described as “info re: President of France.”
The Department of Justice said it identified personal items, some privileged materials and at least 520 pages of potentially privileged material within the 20 boxes.
Trump brought the motion for judicial oversight last month, and Cannon heard arguments on the matter four days in the Southern District of Florida.
The Department of Justice had called it moot to appoint a special master because the department’s own privilege-review team has already set aside documents that it views as having the potential to be subject to attorney-client privilege.
But Judge Cannon said the special master must be allowed to review the materials for personal items and documents and potentially privileged material subject to claims of attorney-client privilege, as well as executive privilege.
The order, she emphasized, does not impact the separate classification review of the seized materials by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Rather than prove he owns the seized property, according to Judge Cannon, Trump must show only that he had a right to possess at least some of the seized property.
“Although the Government argues that Plaintiff has no property interest in any of the presidential records seized from his residence, that position calls for an ultimate judgment on the merits as to those documents and their designations,” she wrote.
Judge Cannon ordered Trump’s attorneys and the Department of Justice to file a proposed list of special masters with high-level security clearance by this Friday.
Responding to the judge’s ruling on Monday, Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform: “Remember it takes courage and ‘guts’ to fight a totally corrupt Department of ‘Justice’ and the FBI.”
Cannon, 41, served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Florida before then-President Trump nominated her to the federal bench in 2020. The Senate later confirmed her appointment in a 56-21 vote.
Department of Justice spokesman Anthony Coley said in a statement that the government is examining Judge Cannon’s opinion and “will consider appropriate next steps in the ongoing litigation.”
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