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Trump seeks special master to review seized Mar-a-Lago materials

In a court filing Monday, Trump’s lawyers accused the Justice Department of treating the former president unfairly for years

US Secret Service and Mar-A-Lago security members at the entrance of former US President Donald Trump's house at Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, US, on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022. Donald Trump faces intensifying legal and political pressure after FBI agents searched his Florida home in a probe of whether he took classified documents from the White House when he left office, casting a shadow on his possible run for the presidency in 2024. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg)

Former president Donald Trump’s legal team on Monday asked a federal judge to appoint a special master to oversee a review of classified documents and other materials seized from Mar-a-Lago this month and sought to force the Justice Department to provide a more thorough explanation of why the search was necessary.

Trump’s filing describes the FBI search as politically motivated, overbroad and “shockingly aggressive,” saying the former president had been cooperative in the probe into the removal of White House documents and accusing agents of improperly seizing records to which they had no right, including Trump’s passports.

It asked the court to order the FBI to return any information taken from Trump’s property that went beyond the scope of the search warrant. The FBI said in a statement last week that it “follows court’s search and seizure orders” and “returns items that do not need to be retained for law enforcement purposes.”

The filing said a special master — an outside expert appointed by the court — could sift through the seized material and set aside any that should be shielded from government review because of executive privilege. Trump’s lawyers also asked that the former president be given an inventory of items seized during the search that is more detailed than the one the FBI left him, which has subsequently been made public.

“Law enforcement is a shield that protects Americans,” says the filing, the first from Trump’s legal team related to the Aug. 8 search. “It cannot be used as a weapon for political purposes. Therefore, we seek judicial assistance in the aftermath of an unprecedented and unnecessary raid on President Trump’s home at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida.”

Asked for comment, Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said in a statement that the search “was authorized by a federal court upon the required finding of probable cause.”

“The Department is aware of this evening’s motion,” Coley said. “The United States will file its response in court.”

The FBI searched former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club on Aug. 8 as part of an investigation into whether presidential documents were mishandled. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Stephen Ryan, a veteran defense lawyer not involved in the Mar-a-Lago case, said he doubted that a judge would grant Trump’s request for a special master to oversee the document review.

“The classic reason you seek a special master is because defense counsel believe there may be attorney-client-privileged information among the material seized. In this case, it’s not at all clear that there is any privileged material,” said Ryan, who successfully requested that a special master be appointed while representing former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen following an FBI search of Cohen’s home and office.

Ryan said he was not aware of any case law supporting the appointment of a special master because of claims of executive privilege. As for a more detailed accounting of the documents seized, Ryan said a court was likely to find that the property receipt was sufficiently detailed to satisfy the requirements of the law.

Trump's secrets: How a records dispute led to the search of Mar-a-Lago

In the filing, Trump’s lawyers offered their version of how negotiations with the Justice Department over locating government records had broken down, leading to a raid Trump bitterly resented.

They said the Justice Department on May 11 subpoenaed all records still located at Mar-a-Lago that bore classification markings, and Trump’s team began reviewing documents to respond to the government’s request.

On June 2, according to the account provided by Trump’s lawyers, the former president invited the FBI to visit Mar-a-Lago and retrieve documents gathered in response to the subpoena. The next day, Jay Bratt, head of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence division, arrived with a team of agents. They inspected a storage facility containing records from Trump’s time in the White House, as well as some clothing and personal items of Donald and Melania Trump. Days later, Trump agreed to install a lock on the storage facility at Bratt’s request.

But the FBI continued to conduct interviews with members of Trump’s personal and household staff, Trump’s lawyers said in the filing. And on June 22, the Justice Department sent a subpoena to the Trump Organization, asking to review surveillance footage from Mar-a-Lago.

Just after 9 a.m. on Aug. 8, Trump’s lawyers called him in New York to alert him that about two dozen FBI agents were searching his Florida home, according to the account Trump’s lawyers provided in their motion. Bratt had called the lawyers to explain that the Justice Department had a court-authorized warrant, and a heated discussion ensued about why this was necessary, the filing says. The agents continued their search of the home, office, storage facility and other rooms at the club for nine hours, carting off box after box of papers.

Two days later, the filing says, a more-than-peeved Trump spoke to Bratt by telephone, asking him to relay the following message to Attorney General Merrick Garland: “President Trump wants the Attorney General to know that he has been hearing from all over the country about the raid. If there was one word to describe their mood it is ‘angry.’ The heat is building up. The pressure is building up. Whatever I can do to take the heat down, to bring the pressure down, just let us know.”

Later that day, amid a spike in threats to law enforcement in relation to the search, Garland held a news conference to explain that he personally signed off on seeking the warrant.

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Trump advisers previously demanded that Garland explain the justification for the search to the public. But in their motion, Trump’s lawyers accuse the Justice Department of deploying a political weapon at a Republican foe.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce E. Reinhart, who approved the application for the warrant, is weighing a request by multiple news agencies, including The Washington Post, to unseal the affidavit filed by the Justice Department explaining the need for a search.

The government has asked for the affidavit to remain under seal, saying that its investigation of the Mar-a-Lago is in the “early stages” and that making the affidavit public could chill potential witnesses, risk the safety of those already interviewed and reveal future investigative steps.

At a hearing last week, Reinhart indicated he was “inclined” to unseal parts of the affidavit. He ordered Justice Department officials to submit proposed redactions by noon Thursday.

But in a written order Monday morning, Reinhart warned that the affidavit could be so heavily redacted that releasing it would be “meaningless.”

“I cannot say at this point that partial redactions will be so extensive that they will result in a meaningless disclosure, but I may ultimately reach that conclusion after hearing further from the Government,” Reinhart wrote.

The Trump search warrant focuses on classified information. What you need to know.

The order also makes explicit that Reinhart rejected the Justice Department’s argument that “the present record justifies keeping the entire Affidavit under seal.”

Reinhart said he would not make a decision about unsealing the document until reviewing the government’s proposed redactions and would stay any ruling pending potential appeals — meaning the affidavit may not be made public for some time, if ever.

The affidavit would provide the most comprehensive rationale for why the government pushed to search Trump’s property — and what investigative steps it took beforehand. It would show whom the Justice Department officials had interviewed, what they believed was potentially on the premises and why they assessed there was probable cause that crimes had been committed.

Writing on his Truth Social platform, Trump called last week for “the immediate release of the completely Unredacted Affidavit.”

Trump’s motion Monday was filed as a new legal action and was assigned to a different federal judge. In it, he said he wants to review the affidavit. But his lawyers did not formally ask for it to be unsealed.

Reinhart had noted in his written order hours earlier that Trump’s legal team had not weighed in on the matter.

“Neither Former President Trump nor anyone else purporting to be the owner of the Premises has filed a pleading taking a position on the Intervenors’ Motions to Unseal,” the judge wrote.

The Jan. 6 insurrection

Congressional hearings: The House committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol held a series of high-profile hearings to share its findings with the U.S. public. In what was likely its final hearing, the committee issued a surprise subpoena seeking testimony from former president Donald Trump. Here’s a guide to the biggest hearing moments so far.

Will there be charges? The committee could make criminal referrals of former president Donald Trump over his role in the attack, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said in an interview.

What we know about what Trump did on Jan. 6: New details emerged when Hutchinson testified before the committee and shared what she saw and heard on Jan. 6.

The riot: On Jan. 6, 2021, a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election results. Five people died on that day or in the immediate aftermath, and 140 police officers were assaulted.

Inside the siege: During the rampage, rioters came perilously close to penetrating the inner sanctums of the building while lawmakers were still there, including former vice president Mike Pence. The Washington Post examined text messages, photos and videos to create a video timeline of what happened on Jan. 6.

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