A federal judge sided with former President Donald Trump on Monday, agreeing to appoint a third party to review the documents recovered in an FBI search of his Florida estate last month while temporarily restricting the Justice Department from continuing parts of its investigation.
“For now, the circumstances surrounding the seizure in this case and the associated need for adequate procedural safeguards are sufficiently compelling to at least get Plaintiff past the courthouse doors,” U.S. District Court Judge Aileen Cannon said in a written order after hearing arguments on the topic last week.
The hearing came after the Trump-appointed judge expressed “preliminary intent” to grant the former president’s request even before hearing from the Justice Department in an unusual move that added to the already non-traditional delayed request from Trump’s team to appoint a special master, which some have speculated is his latest attempt to slow or halt an investigation into his conduct.
Cannon ordered the Justice Department to temporarily halt its review and use of the seized materials for investigative purposes on Monday, saying that “these unprecedented circumstances call for a brief pause to allow for neutral, third-party review to ensure a just process with adequate safeguards.” She did, however, allow the government to continue parts of its investigation related to “intelligence classifications and national security assessments.” The Justice Department is expected to appeal.
The judge ordered DOJ and Trump’s legal team to confer and submit a joint filing by Friday that includes a list of proposed candidates for special master and a proposal outlining the individual’s duties and limitations. She also reserved ruling on Trump’s request for a return of property taken in the FBI search “pending further review.”
Ahead of last week’s hearing, Cannon said the order should not be understood as her final decision on the matter. And a blistering response to the request from the Justice Department filed last week, which suggested that documents had likely been “concealed and removed’ by members of Trump’s team in what was likely an effort to “obstruct the government’s investigation” in addition to arguing against the appointment of a special master, perhaps inspired speculation that the judge would ultimately rule differently.
The Justice Department called Trump’s request “unnecessary,” arguing that it “would significantly harm important government interests, including national security interests” in a court filing that revealed new details of interaction between the two parties and handling of government documents.
Meanwhile, some questioned the effectiveness of Trump’s request altogether, which came weeks after the search was conducted, especially as the Justice Department reported in court filings that it had completed an initial analysis of privileged documents taken from Mar-a-Lago.
Trump’s legal team responded to the Justice Department’s blistering rebuke of its request with an inflammatory accusation that the government is sidestepping Trump’s rights and its investigators are not to be trusted, while accusing the Justice Department of twisting the “framework of responding to a motion for a Special Master.”
“Left unchecked, the DOJ will impugn, leak, and publicize selective aspects of their investigation,” Trump’s legal team wrote in its filing on Wednesday, suggesting that without a special master, it would have to “somehow trust the self-restraint of currently unchecked investigators.”
Trump’s legal team initially argued in its first filing since the FBI conducted a search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home last month that the federal government violated the former president’s Fourth Amendment rights and a special master should be appointed to review the documents seized and identify any covered by executive privilege.
Cannon disagreed with Trump’s legal team on Monday, writing that “the Court agrees with the Government that, at least based on the record to date, there has not been a compelling showing of callous disregard for Plaintiff’s constitutional rights.”
But the judge also argued that Trump has an individual interest in the seized property and that the retention of the seized materials could put Trump “at risk of suffering injury,” writing that “as a function of Plaintiff’s former position as President of the United States, the stigma associated with the subject seizure is in a league of its own.”
“A future indictment, based to any degree on property that ought to be returned, would result in reputational harm of a decidedly different order of magnitude,” Cannon wrote.
The request for a special master hinged on Trump’s claim that some of the documents taken from Mar-a-Lago were protected by executive privilege. The Justice Department, in its response, rejected that claim, saying that “the former President never asserted executive privilege over any of the documents nor claimed that any of the documents in the boxes containing classification markings had been declassified.”
Still, in a post on his social media platform last week, Trump again asserted that he had declassified documents. Trump’s legal team made no mention of declassifying documents in its filing.
Nearly a month after the Aug. 8 search of Trump’s Florida estate, the request for a special master has seemed to messy the investigation – temporarily halting the Justice Department’s investigation while also providing an opportunity to launch a counteroffensive to Trump that has revealed the most concrete evidence yet that the former president and his team may have obstructed justice.
And Trump hasn’t made things any better. Last week, the former president posted on his social media platform in response to a photo of various documents with classified markings included in the Justice Department’s filing, seeming to acknowledge that he knew he had classified documents in his possession, despite previous claims, when he criticized DOJ for what he said made it look like he had scattered them across the ground
“They took them out of cartons and spread them around on the carpet, making it look like a big ‘find’ for them,” Trump wrote. “They dropped them, not me.”
The move also comes after Cannon on Friday unsealed a more detailed list of what was taken from Mar-a-Lago, provided by the Justice Department at the judge’s request days earlier, which confirmed reports that personal items were commingled among documents marked as classified, while revealing that among the items were a number of empty folders where classified documents seemingly should have been.