U.S. judge agrees to special master in Trump search case, delaying probe

WASHINGTON, Sep 5 (Reuters) – A federal judge on Monday agreed to appoint a special master to review records seized by the FBI during a search of former President Donald Trump’s Florida property, a move that would allow justice The criminal investigation of the department is likely to be delayed.

In her decision, U.S. District Judge Eileen Cannon in West Palm Beach, Florida, granted Trump’s request for a special master, an independent third party, who is sometimes assigned to review materials in sensitive cases. that may be covered by the attorney-client privilege.

Canon said the person would be tasked with reviewing documents that are not only covered by attorney-client privilege, but possibly any records covered by executive privilege as well.

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The decision to allow a special master to review documents that may be covered by executive privilege, a legal principle that could shield certain White House records from disclosure, is unknown legal territory.

Cannon also ordered the Justice Department to stop reviewing records as part of its criminal investigation, a move that would at least temporarily hinder the investigation’s ability to continue.

Cannon, however, said US intelligence officials could continue their review to see if the records could cause any harm to national security if uncovered.

Trump is under investigation for the removal of government records, some of which were marked as highly classified, from the White House after his departure in January 2021, and to keep them at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach. was stored at home.

The Justice Department has said it is also investigating the possible interception, as the FBI uncovered evidence that Trump’s team may have intentionally concealed classified documents when agents tried to retrieve them in June.

If the special master decides that some material is covered by Trump’s claims of executive privilege, it could hinder the government’s investigation.

Cannon, who was appointed in 2020 a few months before Trump stepped down, rejected the government’s argument that the records belong to the government and that Trump is no longer president and therefore cannot claim executive privileges.

He gave Trump’s legal team and the Justice Department until Friday to jointly file a proposed list of special master candidates. The one the court eventually taps would require the requisite security clearance and legal expertise.

It is unclear whether the Justice Department will appeal against Canon’s decision or on what grounds.

“The United States is investigating the opinion and will consider appropriate next steps in the ongoing trial,” Justice Department spokesman Anthony Cooley said.

Representatives for Trump did not respond to a request for comment.

However, in a post on his Truth Social platform following Cannon’s decision, Trump wrote: “Remember, it takes courage and ‘guts’ to fight ‘justice’ and a completely corrupt department of the FBI.”

A revised FBI photo of documents and classified cover sheets recovered from a container stored at the Florida property of former US President Donald Trump, and which was included in a US Justice Department filing and released on August 30, 2022. Handout via US Department of Justice / REUTERS

‘Totally special treatment’

Some legal experts on Monday called the judge’s order extremely flawed.

“It’s not something that the courts do,” said former Justice Department attorney Jonathan Schaab.

He said it was strange for Cannon to prevent the Justice Department from reviewing records at this stage in the investigation, before an indictment was even returned.

“It’s giving absolutely special treatment,” Schaab said.

In his decision, Cannon justified his actions by claiming that Trump faces the stigma of having to search his home, and that any future indictment based on the seizure of those records would cause “reputable harm”. .

Trump has accused the Justice Department of launching a partisan witch-hunt against him without evidence. His lawyers argued that appointing an independent third party to review the material would be a significant restraint on the government.

The Justice Department argued that there was no point in appointing a special master because its filter team – a group of agents who are not part of the investigation – had completed their work.

Prosecutors said in a September 1 hearing that agents kept and set aside about 520 pages, which may be subject to attorney-client privilege. The remaining records have already been reviewed by the investigation team for criminal investigation.

In her decision on Monday, Cannon said she was concerned about how the Justice Department might be reviewing her privilege, adding that she was aware of at least two instances in which members of the investigation team were exposed to those materials. were exposed which were later designated as potential privileges. ,

“Those examples alone, even if completely unintentional, raise questions about the adequacy of the filter review process,” she wrote.

Several former Justice Department lawyers, both Democrats and Republicans, have criticized Trump’s call for a special master.

“I don’t think a special master executive privilege makes sense with respect to the material,” former Attorney General Bill Barr, a Trump appointee, told Reuters in an interview.

“If documents are subject to executive privilege, they include official deliberations about executive functions, and by definition, those documents belong to the government.”

John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser who also previously served as the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, called the judge’s decision “amateur” and not well-reasoned.

“My recommendation to the Justice Department is to immediately appeal the temporary injunction, but cooperate and expedite the actual implementation of the judge’s order,” Bolton said in an interview.

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Reporting by Sarah Ann Lynch; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Leslie Adler

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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