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Master’s special examination in Trump case ends as Court of Appeals ruling takes effect

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WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court on Thursday ended a special master’s examination of sensitive documents the FBI had seized from former President Donald J. Trump’s private club and Florida residence, concluding a legal battle which had delayed the Justice Department’s investigation for nearly three months.

The United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta moved after Mr. Trump’s attorneys chose not to challenge its ruling last week ending a lawsuit of Mr. Trump that had imposed a special master. The court had given him a week to challenge the decision before it took effect.

The move ended the special master’s review and lifted an injunction that had prevented prosecutors from using seized documents as evidence. The step officially removed a significant hurdle in the investigation into whether Mr. Trump illegally kept national security secrets at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, and hampered government efforts. to retrieve them.

The ruling last week by the appeals court panel, which included two Trump appointees, overturned an order issued in September by another Trump appointee, Judge Aileen M. Cannon of the Southern District of Florida. He also ordered her to dismiss the lawsuit.

Judge Cannon’s decision to impose the special master, Judge Raymond J. Dearie, was unusual because it came before there were charges – treating Mr. Trump differently than ordinary search warrant targets. She also ordered Judge Dearie to consider whether some of the records seized should be kept permanently from investigators under executive privilege, a claim that has never been successfully made in a criminal case.

The rejection of the special master’s review dealt a final blow to Mr. Trump, whose request for a judge to intervene has backfired on him on several occasions.

Even if the master’s special examination did not yield any definitive results, Mr. Trump still has to pay for nearly three months of work. It’s unclear how much the effort cost, but Judge Dearie, a senior judge who is nearing retirement, worked for no additional pay. Still, the price included hiring a vendor to digitize around 13,000 documents and photographs, and paying an assistant who charged $550 per hour.

The litigation also undermined Mr. Trump’s public claims that he declassified everything he brought to Mar-a-Lago before he left office. His defense attorneys resisted Judge Dearie’s invitation to repeat that claim in court, where there are professional consequences for lying, and in September an appeals court panel drew attention on the lack of evidence of any declassification.

Judge Dearie never had the opportunity to file a report and recommendations to Judge Cannon on how she should handle disputes between the Justice Department and Mr. Trump’s lawyers over the seized documents. But various court documents outlining these disputes could foreshadow legal fights that could arise.

If the special counsel currently leading the investigation into the documents, Jack Smith, decides to indict Mr. Trump or some of his aides, defense attorneys could ask the judge handling the case to suppress the evidence obtained. during the search of Mar-a-Lago.

In their papers to Judge Dearie, Mr. Trump’s lawyers insisted that many of the records seized were protected by executive privilege. The Department of Justice has argued that some sort of privilege can never be invoked to retain executive branch records from another part of the executive – in this case, departmental investigators – let alone when the claim was made by a former president without the support of the current one.

Because the case is closed before any final decision on this issue, Mr. Trump’s lawyers could raise it again.

Mr. Trump’s legal team also claimed that he personally possesses bundles of documents that the Justice Department maintains as public property under the Presidential Records Act. Among those public records were documents used to support clemency petitions Mr. Trump received as president.

The 11th Circuit did not address the merits of Mr. Trump’s claims about personal possession of much of the material, calling the issue irrelevant to the issue at hand since investigators are seizing personal property as evidence. all the time when executing search warrants.

In September, a similar 11th Circuit panel granted an earlier Justice Department request to regain access to approximately 103 documents marked as classified, some highly classified, which Judge Cannon had barred investigators from using until until the master’s special examination was completed and she settled the remaining disputes.

That panel included the same two Trump appointees who dismissed the entire lawsuit last week, Andrew L. Brasher and Britt Grant.

Mr. Trump appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, but the justices declined to intervene.

Last month, facing a series of setbacks in the courts, Mr Trump raged on social media over “Republican judges” who “go ‘ROGUE!'” to signal their independence from ” those who named them”.

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nytimes

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