Judge in Trump Search Case Issues Written Order Seeking Redactions

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The federal magistrate judge in Florida who signed the warrant authorizing the search of former President Donald J. Trump’s private club and residence issued a formal order on Monday directing the government to propose redactions to the sealed affidavit used to justify the search, saying that he remained inclined to make portions of it public.

But the judge, Bruce E. Reinhart, repeated in his order the note of caution he struck in court last week. The government, he added, could still persuade him to keep the whole affidavit sealed, and an extensively redacted version might result in what he described as “a meaningless disclosure.”

Hours after Judge Reinhart issued the order, lawyers for Mr. Trump filed a motion asking another federal judge in Florida — one whom Mr. Trump named to the bench — to appoint an independent arbiter, known as a special master, to review the documents seized during the search for any that fell outside the scope of the warrant or that were protected by executive privilege or attorney-client privilege.

The motion, which was filled with bombastic complaints about the search — “The government has long treated President Donald J. Trump unfairly,” it said at one point — also asked the Justice Department to provide an “informative receipt” of what was taken from Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s home and club in Florida, on Aug. 8. His lawyers wrote that the inventory left at the property by the agents who conducted the search was “legally deficient” and did “little to identify” the seized material.

If the judge who received the motion, Aileen M. Cannon, appoints a special master in the case, it will almost certainly drag out the process of reviewing the multiple boxes of documents that were seized and slow down the government’s investigation into whether Mr. Trump obstructed a federal inquiry and wrongfully retained national defense documents.

Special masters were appointed in other high-profile searches involving Mr. Trump — including the one conducted in 2018 at the office of Michael D. Cohen, the former president’s longtime personal lawyer. In the Cohen case, lawyers for Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen moved quickly to request a special master. This time, it took Mr. Trump’s legal team two weeks to ask for an independent review.

“The department is aware of this evening’s motion,” said Anthony Coley, a spokesman for the Justice Department. “The United States will file its response in court.”

Judge Reinhart’s order earlier in the day effectively put in writing a ruling he made from the bench last Thursday, after arguments from news media companies that wanted the entire affidavit unsealed and federal prosecutors who wanted to keep it fully under wraps. In both his written order and his oral ruling, Judge Reinhart instructed the Justice Department to file a redacted version of the affidavit to him under seal by this Thursday at noon, accompanied by a memo explaining its justifications for the proposed redactions.

In his order, Judge Reinhart acknowledged that it was “a foundational principle of American law that judicial proceedings should be open to the public,” but offered three reasons for keeping much of the affidavit under seal, including some that were never fully explored at the hearing last week, in Federal District Court in West Palm Beach, Fla.

He said there was “a significant likelihood” that releasing the full affidavit could harm the safety of witnesses who helped the government’s investigation, leading to “witness intimidation or retaliation.”

“Given the public notoriety and controversy about this search, it is likely that even witnesses who are not expressly named in the affidavit would be quickly and broadly identified over social media and other communication channels, which could lead to them being harassed and intimidated,” Judge Reinhart wrote.

He also expressed concern about revealing the identity of the F.B.I. agent who swore to the affidavit, particularly when there have been “increased threats against F.B.I. personnel since the search.”

Days after the search at Mar-a-Lago, an armed man attacked the F.B.I.’s Cincinnati field office and died in a shootout with the local police. Not long after that, a Pennsylvania man was arrested after posting messages online threatening the F.B.I., including at least one that directly mentioned the attack outside Cincinnati.

Judge Reinhart further noted in his written order that releasing the full affidavit could also put Mr. Trump in danger, given that the document “discusses physical aspects” of Mar-a-Lago, which is “protected by the United States Secret Service.”

“Disclosure of those details,” Judge Reinhart wrote, “could affect the Secret Service’s ability to carry out its protective function.”

Overall, however, the judge wrote that he was still inclined to release parts of the affidavit — at least until he receives the government’s proposed redactions.

“Particularly given the intense public and historical interest in an unprecedented search of a former president’s residence,” Judge Reinhart wrote, “the government has not yet shown that these administrative concerns are sufficient to justify sealing.”

In their motion for a special master, Mr. Trump’s lawyers confirmed that prosecutors took several steps before searching Mar-a-Lago to retrieve the documents. Seeking to paint the former president as having cooperated fully with the Justice Department, they mentioned, for example, that Mr. Trump returned 15 boxes of documents to the National Archives this winter and “voluntarily accepted service” of a grand jury subpoena in May demanding the return of documents “bearing classification markings.”

The lawyers also noted that the Justice Department had told them that a so-called filter team of federal agents was already working to separate potentially privileged items from the seized materials. Indeed, one of Mr. Trump’s spokesmen recently released an email indicating that the filter team had discovered Mr. Trump’s passports among the papers that were taken from Mar-a-Lago and quickly returned them.

The lawyers complained, however, that a special master was nonetheless needed to oversee the work of the team, especially because its leader “is a deputy to the lead prosecutor in this matter.”

Beyond requesting the special master, the motion attacked the search, saying that the warrant was “overbroad” in what amounted to a possible violation of the Fourth Amendment. But while the motion suggested that there were “well-established bases” to suppress the warrant, Mr. Trump’s lawyers did not go so far as to ask Judge Cannon to suppress it.

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