A U.S. judge on Thursday September 15, sided with former US president Donald Trump, by refusing to let the Justice Department immediately resume reviewing classified records seized by the FBI from Trump’s Florida estate in an ongoing criminal investigation.
Federal Judge Aileen Cannon also appointed Senior District Judge Raymond Dearie as a third party to review records seized by the FBI for materials that could be privileged and kept from federal investigators.
The Justice Department also sought to block the independent arbiter, Dearie, from vetting the roughly 100 classified documents included among the 11,000 records gathered in the court-approved Aug. 8 search.
“The court does not find it appropriate to accept the government’s conclusions on these important and disputed issues without further review by a neutral third party in an expedited and orderly fashion,” Cannon wrote Thursday, September 15.
Cannon’s ruling further complicates the Justice Department’s investigation into Trump’s alleged handling of classified records. The special master’s review could bar prosecutor from viewing documents seized as they weigh the possibility of criminal charges against the former president who is planning on coming out for president in 2024.
Cannon on Thursday said she would instruct Dearie to prioritize reviewing the classified records first. She also directed him to complete his review of all the seized materials by Nov. 30.
Trump’s lawyers in Monday’s filing disputed the department’s claim that the roughly 100 documents at issue are in fact classified, and they reminded Cannon that a president generally has broad powers to declassify records. They stopped short of suggesting that Trump had declassified the documents, a claim he has made on social media but not in court filings.
About two weeks after the search, Trump’s attorneys sought the appointment of a special master to review the seized records for materials that could be covered by attorney-client privilege or executive privilege – a legal doctrine that can shield some presidential records from disclosure.
The Justice Department is investigating Trump for retaining government records – some marked as highly classified, including “top secret” – at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach after leaving office in January 2021.
The department is also looking into possible obstruction of the probe after it found evidence that records may have been removed or concealed from the FBI when it sent agents to Mar-a-Lago in June to try to recover all classified documents through a grand jury subpoena. The Justice department says it will take the case to the appeal court after losing to Trump on Thursday.
Cannon was appointed to the bench by Trump in 2020.