US gov’t appeals halt of Trump’s classified files review

Lawyers on both sides have engaged in a legal battle over the classified papers recovered from Trump's home [File: Kate Munsch/Reuters]

Justice Department asks a court to lift an order barring it from reviewing secret documents seized from ex-president’s Florida home.

The US Justice Department has asked a federal appeals court to let it resume reviewing classified materials seized in an FBI search of former President Donald Trump’s Florida estate.

In the filing before the US court of appeals on Friday, the Justice Department said it should halt an earlier ruling preventing prosecutors from relying on classified documents in their criminal investigation.

The department also asked that a third party be appointed to examine all the records taken in the FBI raid at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence in Palm Beach after his presidency ended.

After the unprecedented search of the former president’s property last month, the Justice Department said it is investigating the illegal retention of government records – some marked as highly classified, including “top secret” – as well as obstruction of a federal probe.

The Justice Department must now convince the Atlanta-based appeals court, with a conservative majority, to take its side in the records probe. Trump appointees make up six of the 11 active judges on the court.

Second attempt

The government’s motion comes after US District Judge Aileen Cannon on Thursday rejected the same requests from the Justice Department.

Cannon, whom Trump appointed to the bench in 2020, said she would tell Senior US Judge Raymond Dearie, who is filling the role of a “special master” in the case, to prioritise the classified records in his review, which she set a November 30 deadline to complete.

There were roughly 100 classified documents among the 11,000 records gathered in the FBI’s court-approved August 8 search at the former president’s home.

If Cannon’s ruling stands, experts said, it would likely stall the Justice Department investigation involving those classified records.

Delaying the review of the classified documents, which it argues are government property, “impedes the government’s efforts to protect the nation’s security”, the Justice Department said.

The government’s Friday filing at times directly took issue with Cannon’s prior decisions in the case.

Prosecutors said the judge cited court papers from Trump’s lawyers that suggested the former president could have declassified the documents marked as classified, but those legal briefs stopped short of claiming Trump did so.

“The court erred in granting extraordinary relief based on unsubstantiated possibilities,” the government lawyers wrote.

The Justice Department also criticised Cannon’s direction that classified records be disclosed to Dearie and Trump’s lawyers as part of an outside review of all records taken in the search, and described the former president’s lawyers as potentially being witnesses to “relevant events” in the criminal probe.

The appeal will be heard first by a three-judge panel, but could ultimately wind up at the Supreme Court.

Trump is facing mounting legal pressure with the Justice Department saying top-secret documents were “likely concealed” to obstruct an FBI probe into his potential mishandling of classified materials.

He has denied all wrongdoing and said the raid on his mansion was “one of the most egregious assaults on democracy in the history of our country”, while making it a major talking point at his political rallies.



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