US Judge approves independent review of documents found at Trump Estate

A page from the order granting a request by former President Donald Trump's legal team to appoint a special master to review documents seized by the FBI during a search of his Mar-a-Lago estate. [VOA Photos]

A U.S. federal judge on Monday approved former President Donald Trump's request to have an independent special master appointed to review thousands of pages of national security documents and other materials seized from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida to determine whether some of them should be returned to him.

U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon in Florida authorized the appointment of the special master over the objections of the Justice Department, which told her last week it had already completed a review of the highly classified documents and other papers it took from Trump's wintertime oceanside retreat in a court-authorized search August 8.

The Justice Department said that out of the 11,000 pages it had seized, it found about 500 pages of potentially privileged materials that possibly should be returned to Trump, which the Florida judge said in her ruling included medical documents, accounting information and tax-related correspondence.

Cannon ordered lawyers for the Justice Department and Trump to give her a list by Friday of names of potential candidates who could perform the independent review of the documents seized from Mar-a-Lago. She also said they should negotiate "the duties and limitations" for the eventual appointee and propose a timetable for completion of the review.

The judge also ordered the Justice Department, "pending completion of the special master's review" or a new court order, to halt its criminal investigation into why Trump took highly classified documents with him to Florida when his White House term ended in January 2021 rather than turn them over to the National Archives as required by U.S. law.

But she said even with the delay in the criminal investigation, government intelligence experts could continue to review whether the country's national security interests were harmed by Trump keeping the documents at Mar-a-Lago, where hundreds of people frequent the facility's dining room and stay in its hotel.

In a court filing last week, the Justice Department said it only sought and won approval for the search of a basement storage room, Trump's office and other rooms at Mar-a-Lago after it came to suspect that documents were "likely concealed and removed" from the storage area and "efforts were likely taken to obstruct the government's investigation."

Trump had earlier turned over hundreds of documents in January and June. But Attorney General Merrick Garland authorized the search last month and federal Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart approved it after prosecutors said they had learned from inside sources that there still were more documents at Mar-a-Lago, even though a Trump lawyer, Christina Bobb, had signed a statement in June saying that a "diligent search" showed there was nothing more to be found.

The Justice Department included a picture in its court filing of an array of highly classified documents it had found in Trump's office during the search and laid out on a carpet at Mar-a-Lago.

Trump's lawyers countered that "simply put, the notion that Presidential records would contain sensitive information should have never been cause for alarm."

Trump has disparaged the court-authorized search for the documents. He wrote on social media, "Terrible the way the FBI, during the Raid of Mar-a-Lago threw documents haphazardly all over the floor (perhaps pretending it was me that did it!), and then started taking pictures of them for the public to see."

Trump again claimed he had declassified the documents, although he has not produced any evidence that he did so before leaving office January 20, 2021, when his authority to do that expired.

Cannon, a Trump appointee, said in her order that the special master needed to be appointed in "the interest in ensuring the integrity of an orderly process amidst swirling allegations of bias and media leaks."

The judge said Trump "faces an unquantifiable potential harm by way of improper disclosure of sensitive information to the public."

Cannon said that because Trump is a former president, "the stigma" of the seizure of material that should be returned to him rather than retained by the government "is in a league of its own. A future indictment, based to any degree on property that ought to be returned, would result in reputational harm of a decidedly different order of magnitude."