Judge withholds ruling on special master in Trump, DOJ battle
A federal judge on Thursday declined to issue an immediate decision in a case brought by former President Trump, whose attorneys asked the court to appoint a third party legal expert to review evidence seized by FBI investigators when they searched his Florida home.
U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon said she will issue a ruling at some point on whether to appoint a so-called special master to review the evidence and temporarily block the Justice Department’s investigation into the mishandling of classified records due to their storage at Mar-a-Lago. She did not specify a timeline for when she might issue that decision.
Cannon wrote last Saturday that it was her “preliminary intent” to appoint a special master, and on Thursday asked, “What is the harm?” in such an appointment.
Chris Kise, the former Florida solicitor general who officially joined Trump’s legal team this week, argued that appointing a special master as a neutral third party would restore faith in the investigation.
“This is an unprecedented situation. We need to lower the temperature,” Kise said. “We need to take a deep breath.”
During courtroom arguments the Justice Department warned against any decision that would stall its investigation of Trump.
Jay Bratt, head of the counterintelligence division of the Justice Department, argued Trump does not have the authority to claim privilege over documents from his time in the White House because “he is no longer president.”
In the warrant that allowed for the search Trump is now contesting, the government indicated it was focused on violations of the Espionage Act and possible obstruction to its investigation as documents were evidently “concealed and removed” during the more than a year they were stored at Mar-a-Lago.
The Miami Herald reported that during Thursday’s hearing, it was revealed that more than 300 classified documents had been obtained by federal authorities since Trump left office. Those documents were either turned over by Trump or seized during the search at Mar-a-Lago, the news outlet reported.
The hearing came after the Justice Department filed a lengthy brief asking the court to reject Trump’s request, arguing a filter team composed of investigators not assigned to the case have already reviewed the evidence to scan for personal property, as well as any materials that might be covered by attorney-client privilege.
Trump made the request for a special master two weeks after his home was searched — delaying a move others, like his prior attorney Michael Cohen, made the very same day.
The Justice Department noted in a Tuesday brief that it has already completed much of its review for any privileged materials but stressed that a special master would halt the progress of the investigation to replicate protective measures the government has already taken.
It also noted that securing a special master in this case would be especially complicated, in part because a special master would likely need to obtain a security clearance to review the records and special authorization from intelligence agencies.
Trump’s legal team has argued that a special master would help shield the government from obtaining any information that should not have been swept up in the search. But they’ve also argued Trump had a right to retain presidential records due to executive privilege.
The government has flatly rejected that argument, noting that presidential records are property of the government and must be managed by the National Archives.
Thursday’s hearing came two days after a filing from the Justice Department laid out how Trump and his team had repeatedly rebuffed attempts to acquire sensitive documents. The government filing included a photo of documents labeled “secret” and “top secret” laid out on the floor of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.
Trump, in a post Wednesday on his Truth Social platform, accused agents of having strewn the documents on the floor, but in the process he appeared to confirm that he kept the materials in “cartons” in his office at Mar-a-Lago.
Separately from the Justice Department investigation, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence notified lawmakers last week that it intends to conduct its own review of the potential national security fallout stemming from the documents’ handling.
According to reports, the sensitive nature of the information kept at Trump’s home, which included some of the most highly classified materials, was at issue in the courtroom, with Cannon saying she would consider allowing that review to continue even if she granted Trump’s request for a special master.
The Associated Press contributed.
Updated at 4:39 p.m.
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