A federal magistrate judge has ordered the unsealing of a redacted affidavit laying out the Justice Department’s evidence for the Aug. 8 search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate as part of an investigation into mishandling of classified information, theft of government records and obstruction of justice.
Judge Bruce Reinhart instructed prosecutors to make the partially-obscured document public on the court’s docket by noon Friday.
The Justice Department resisted making even a redacted version of the affidavit public, warning that any acceptable redactions would be so extensive as to render the document meaningless. It’s unclear whether the department will seek to appeal the order, which could produce further delays.
Reinhart’s order came after Justice Department attorneys proposed redactions earlier Thursday to the secret document that prompted him to approve the FBI search of the waterside Palm Beach property that serves both as a home for the former president and a private club for members.
Reinhart emphasized that prosecutors had shown “good cause” to redact elements of the affidavit that would reveal “the identities of witnesses, law enforcement agents, and uncharged parties,” “the investigation’s strategy, direction, scope, sources, and methods” and “grand jury information.”
The judge appeared to approve all of the deletions the Justice Department proposed, some of which are intended to shield investigators’ sources and methods for collecting evidence as part of their criminal probe into the “highly classified” documents the FBI discovered at Mar-a-Lago.
Exactly what prosecutors contend needs to be protected from disclosure in the court submission and what specific arguments they’ve made for secrecy is unknown, since the DOJ filing was made under seal to a federal court in West Palm Beach.
However, a Justice Department spokesman confirmed that prosecutors complied with the order to submit those suggestions by noon Thursday. Entries in the court’s docket that appeared right around the deadline, said the filings were sealed and offered no other details.
“The United States has filed a submission under seal per the Court’s order of Aug. 22,” spokesman Anthony Coley said in a brief statement. “The Justice Department respectfully declines further comment as the Court considers the matter.”
At a hearing last week, Reinhart signaled he was inclined to make portions of the affidavit public, even though such documents usually remain under seal until criminal charges are filed or an investigation is closed.
However, the judge said in a written order on Monday that he would not release details about sources and methods the government relied on in the affidavit. But the intense national interest surrounding the investigation has drawn unusual attention to incremental developments in the ongoing case, often fueled by the former president himself, who has mounted a campaign to discredit the investigation, even as it has presented an increasingly acute legal threat.
A wide array of news organizations, along with the conservative group Judicial Watch, petitioned the court to unseal the affidavit.
Trump has said publicly that he wants all documents related to the search released, but he has not formally joined in the unsealing effort. His lawyers did make a separate legal move Monday to seek an outside party to oversee review of the materials the FBI seized during the Aug. 8 search at Mar-a-Lago. Another judge has asked Trump’s attorneys to provide more details on their request by Friday.
DOJ has previously said that if ordered by Reinhart, it would propose redactions so extensive that it would render the search affidavit meaningless to the public. However, the department is also under pressure to reveal more details about the basis for taking the unprecedented step of executing a search warrant at the home of a former president. Attorney General Merrick Garland, who has acknowledged directly approving the search, has already recognized the unusual urgency of the matter, moving to unseal the search warrant itself, as well as two redacted receipts for property taken from Trump’s estate.
Adding to that pressure: Trump has used the vacuum of information to assail law enforcement and contend that the search was a politically motivated attack against a potential contender for the White House in 2024. He and his allies have ratcheted up heated rhetoric around the search. Trump himself on Thursday morning described the search “the greatest political attack in the history of the U.S.,” in a post on his social media site.
But the department has resisted making elements of the underlying affidavit public, warning it could scare off cooperative witnesses — particularly amid a rising tide of violent threats to law enforcement and others connected to the investigation — or reveal details about how the FBI collected evidence in the case.
Making the document public could also set a precedent that would bolster efforts to get such records in other high-profile, politically charged investigations. A Justice Department prosecutor told Reinhart that process would be a burden on the government to handle in a slew of cases, but the magistrate judge said in his order Monday that he wasn’t concerned at the moment with other cases.
“I do not need to reach the question of whether, in some other case, these concerns could justify denying public access; they very well might. Particularly given the intense public and historical interest in an unprecedented search of a former President’s residence, the Government has not yet shown that these administrative concerns are sufficient to justify sealing.”
It’s unclear whether Reinhart’s ruling will be the final say on what, if anything, gets released. The Justice Department and any of the entities asking for public release of the affidavit could appeal his decision to a District Court judge and to the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Reinhart suggested at the hearing last week that he would not release anything until any potential appeals were resolved.
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