Federal judge orders release of redacted Trump search affidavit

Affidavit is expected to contain information about investigation into Trump’s retention of government secrets at Mar-a-Lago

A federal judge ordered on Thursday that the affidavit justifying the search warrant used to seize sensitive government documents from Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida earlier this month should be partly unsealed according to redactions proposed by the justice department.

The order from Judge Bruce Reinhart, who approved the FBI search warrant and is overseeing the case, instructed the justice department to release a redacted version of the affidavit that he had reviewed before noon on Friday.

In a two-page ruling, the judge said the justice department’s proposed redactions were specifically restricted to keep secret grand jury material, the identities of uncharged individuals and sources and methods used in the criminal investigation – and the remainder could become public.

“The government has met its burden of showing that its proposed redactions are narrowly tailored to serve the government’s legitimate interest in the integrity of the ongoing investigation and are the least onerous alternative to sealing the entire Affidavit,” Reinhart wrote.

The affidavit is expected to contain key information – notably the probable cause – about the justice department’s investigation into Trump’s unauthorized retention of government secrets at Mar-a-Lago, which could arise to potential charges including under the Espionage Act or obstruction of justice.

How much of the affidavit will be redacted was not clear. The justice department had opposed unsealing the affidavit in any way, and only submitted proposed redactions after being ordered to do so by Reinhart last week, warning redactions could be so extensive as to make it meaningless.

But depending on how the affidavit was produced, former US attorneys said, it could also contain elements that are not directly related to the investigation, such as descriptions of potential crimes that the justice department suspected were being committed at Mar-a-Lago.

The submission – and partial release of the affidavit – is a major juncture in the developing investigation, being led by the justice department’s national security division, and the attorney general, Merrick Garland, who personally approved the warrant after days of deliberations.

The FBI earlier this month quietly executed a search warrant at Trump’s beachfront, pay-for-membership resort in Palm Beach, Florida, retrieving 26 boxes of highly sensitive government records, including some documents with “top secret” markings.

Trump has attempted to hit back at the justice department in subsequent days, and on Monday filed a motion seeking the appointment of a so-called special master to determine what documents federal investigators can use as evidence, and to get a more detailed list of what was seized.

The ruling from Reinhart, which came just hours after the justice department submitted its proposed redactions – also under seal – was expected to some degree after he said last week in court in West Palm Beach, Florida, that he was inclined to make some of the affidavit public.

“I’m not prepared to find that the affidavit should be fully sealed,” Reinhart said, explaining that he thought it was important that the public have as much information as it could, while acknowledging the redactions sought by the justice department would likely be extensive.

The preview of his decision on Thursday followed a disclosure from the chief of the counter-intelligence section at the justice department, Jay Bratt, that the criminal investigation surrounding the FBI’s seizure of government documents from Mar-a-Lago remained in “early stages”.

Bratt had argued in court against the release of any portion of the affidavit or even a redacted version of the highly-sensitive document, saying it could risk revealing the roadmap of the investigation and chill cooperation from other witnesses who may come forward.

The judge, however, disagreed that the justice department could make nothing of the affidavit public, and ordered Bratt to file one with redactions to protect the investigation in case he decided to make it public. He assured the government: “This is going to be a considered, careful process.”

Reinhart presided over arguments between the justice department and several media organizations. Trump has said he supports unsealing the affidavit but filed no motion of his own. One of his lawyers, Christina Bobb, nonetheless attended the hearing last week to observe proceedings.

The justice department that day did support unsealing several ancillary documents that were not directly related to the affidavit, including the cover sheet to the search warrant application, and the court’s sealing order – which Reinhart agreed to make public.

Those unsealed documents offered more detail about the case. Notably, the cover sheet showed the department’s descriptions of potential crimes at Mar-a-Lago: willful retention of national defense information, concealment or removal of government records, and obstruction of a federal investigation.


Hugo Lowell in New York

The GuardianTramp

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