The special master appointed to review documents seized by federal agents who searched former President Donald Trump’s estate in Florida appeared to doubt on Tuesday Trump’s claim that he had declassified the various top secret and other documents highly sensitive found there.
The special master, Senior U.S. District Judge Raymond J. Dearie, previously asked Trump’s attorneys for more information on which of more than 100 sensitive documents federal agents found at his Mar-a-Lago estate might have be declassified. Trump’s attorneys had told the judge in a letter Monday evening that they did not want to release that information yet because it could force them to “prematurely disclose a defense on the merits of any subsequent indictment.”
During a hearing in federal court in Brooklyn, Dearie noted that the current case was a civil dispute, not a criminal one, but that he took the government’s national security concerns seriously.
“Let’s not minimize the fact that we are at least handling potentially legitimately classified information. The government has a very strong obligation, as do all of us, to ensure that this information does not fall into the wrong hands,” Dearie said. said. While Trump’s filing claimed neither party had provided evidence that the documents were classified, Dearie said the government had presented “prima facie evidence” that the documents are, as they bear marks of classification.
“As far as I’m concerned, that’s the end,” Dearie said, unless Trump’s team has evidence to the contrary.
Trump has claimed on social media that he has declassified all records in his possession, but his attorneys have yet to formally make that argument in any sworn court filings in the case.
Trump’s attorney, James Trusty, argued that “we shouldn’t be able to have to release statements” and witness statements on the classification issue. Dearie suggested that not doing so could be problematic for their current case.
“My view is that you can’t have your cake and eat it,” Dearie said.
Justice Department attorney Julie Edelstein noted that some of the documents recovered “are so sensitive that even members of the team investigating possible violations here have not yet been granted permission to see these documents”. She noted that although Trusty has top-secret clearance, even that “wouldn’t be enough to see a number of the documents involved in this case.”
Trusty called Edelstein’s argument “rather stunning”. “It’s kind of an incredible moment not to see a single lawyer have access to the documents that substantiate their raid,” he said.
The judge told Trump’s attorney, “It’s a need to know. And if you need to know, you will know.” He also suggested he would try to avoid reviewing some of the most sensitive documents in the case – and also block Trump’s lawyers from seeing them.
“I don’t want to see the material — it’s presumably sensitive material,” he said, adding that if he can make his recommendations to the judge who asked for his recommendations “without exposing me or you expose to this material, I will do it. On the other hand, if I can’t, we have to take another alternative.
Dearie said he would issue a scheduling order in the case later Tuesday, and noted that “there are 11,000 documents” at issue in the case and “we have a short time” to review them for questions of privilege.
Trusty urged Dearie not to go too fast. He said Trump’s team is “starting from scratch” and would benefit from having “the time to review all the documents.”
Aileen Cannon, a Trump-appointed federal judge in Florida, granted the former president’s request to appoint a special master to review the evidence earlier this month, and ordered the DOJ to suspend the criminal investigation into the charges. documents retrieved while this review is in progress. Cannon said an assessment of damages for mishandled records could take place, but the Justice Department said the criminal investigation was a necessary part of the assessment and appealed its order.
In a filing Tuesday, Trump’s attorneys argued the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals should reject the government’s request to stay Cannon’s decision, and called the investigation “both unprecedented and erroneous” and “dispute over the storage of documents that has gotten out of hand”. .”
Trump’s offer was backed by an appeals court filing by a coalition of 11 Republican attorneys general, who suggested “looting” from the House of Trump was politically motivated and argued that Cannon’s order should be left as is because of Biden administration “gambling”. Most of those involved had previously backed a lawsuit challenging the 2020 election results that was dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Tom Winter contributed.