Judge appears willing to unveil some of Mar-a-Lago search affidavit
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - A federal judge on Thursday ordered the Justice Department to put forward proposed redactions as he committed to making public at least part of the affidavit supporting the search warrant for former President Donald Trump's estate in Florida.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart gave prosecutors a week to submit a copy of the affidavit with proposed redactions for the information it wants to keep secret after the FBI seized classified and top secret information during a search at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate last week.
The Justice Department also revealed during Thursday's hearing that the investigation into whether Trump illegally stored classified records at his Florida estate – and potentially violated the Espionage Act – is still "in its early stages."
Jay Bratt, a top Justice Department national security prosecutor, had argued that the affidavit should remain hidden from the public. Unsealing it, he said, would provide a "road map" of the investigation — which is in its "early stages" — and expose the next steps to be taken by federal agents and prosecutors.
He argued it was in the public interest for the investigation, including interviews of witnesses, to go forward unhindered.
Former president Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida. (Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
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As the hearing kicked off, a small caravan of vehicles with Trump flags drove past the federal courthouse in West Palm Beach, Florida. An attorney for Trump, Christina Bobb, was in the courthouse on Thursday but said she was only there to observe the court proceeding.
Attorneys for several news organizations, including The Associated Press, argued the affidavit's release would help the public determine if the Justice Department had legitimate reasons for the search or if it was part of a Biden administration vendetta against Trump, as the former president and his backers contend. Trump, in a Truth Social post last week, called for the release of the unredacted affidavit in the interest of transparency.
"The matter is one of utmost public interest, involving the actions of current and former government officials," wrote attorney Carol Jean LoCiero, who is representing the Times and others. "President Trump decried the the search as an ‘assault that could only take place in Third World Countries,’ asserted agents ‘even broke into my safe,’ and otherwise challenged the validity of the search."
Reinhart gave the government until next Thursday to submit its version with the proposed redactions. He said he would then review it and may meet lawyers for the government and give them a chance to make an argument for why specific information should be withheld.
US President Donald Trump speaks to officials during a roundtable discussion on community safety, at Mary D. Bradford High School in in Kenosha, Wisconsin on September 1, 2020.(Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Justice Department attorneys have argued in a court filings that the investigation into Trump's handling of "highly classified material" is ongoing and that the document contains sensitive information about witnesses.
A recent filing by Juan Antonio Gonzalez, the U.S. attorney in Miami, and Bratt, a top Justice Department national security official, says making the affidavit public would "cause significant and irreparable damage to this ongoing criminal investigation."
"If disclosed, the affidavit would serve as a roadmap to the government’s ongoing investigation, providing specific details about its direction and likely course, in a manner that is highly likely to compromise future investigative steps," they wrote.
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FBI agents searched Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate on Aug. 8, removing 11 sets of classified documents, with some not only marked top secret but also "sensitive compartmented information," according to a receipt of what was taken that was released Friday. That is a special category meant to protect the nation’s most important secrets that if revealed publicly could cause "exceptionally grave" damage to U.S. interests. The court records did not provide specific details about information the documents might contain.