A Florida federal judge Saturday indicated she was inclined to appoint a special master to review some of the documents the FBI seized earlier this month from former President Donald Trump’s Florida home as part of a national-security-related criminal investigation.
U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee, did not issue a blanket order for the special master but instead said she had a “preliminary intent” to do so after hearing arguments she scheduled for Thursday in her West Palm Beach court room.
The Justice Department did not comment.
Trump’s legal team had filed the request Monday to have a court-appointed third party review the documents that the FBI took Aug. 8 from his Palm Beach estate, Mar-a-Lago. Trump’s representatives said the search was overly broad and that FBI agents carted off his passports and documents that had attorney client privilege.
If Cannon grants Trump's request, the special master would be in charge of reviewing documents for issues of privilege, not the highly sensitive records at the heart of the government's investigation. Trump's legal filing also sought protection for documents covered by executive privilege that applies to presidents, but since he's no longer in the White House that legal protection does not automatically apply to these records.
On Friday, another federal judge, Bruce Reinhart, released a heavily redacted copy of the search warrant affidavit detailing how FBI agents in mid-May had found 184 unique documents that had classification markings. The 36-page document stated that 25 documents were marked as “TOP SECRET,” 67 documents marked as “confidential” and 92 marked “secret” — all of which were contained in boxes at Mar-a-Lago. The affidavit said some of the documents had markings that designated intelligence gathered by “clandestine human sources,” such as CIA officer reports or information related to the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Following the search at Mar-a-Lago, officials said, more sensitive documents were discovered.
In her order, Cannon instructed the Justice Department to file under seal “a more detailed Receipt for Property specifying all property seized” and she also required “a particularized notice indicating the status of Defendant’s review of the seized property, including any filter review conducted by the privilege review team and any dissemination of materials beyond the privilege review team.”
An FBI "filter team" of agents — who are independent of the overall investigation tasked with separating out documents covered by attorney-client privilege and other material not relevant to the probe — has meanwhile been at work since the agency carted off the boxes of documents taken from Mar-a-Lago.
Also, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence confirmed it's working “to facilitate a classification review of relevant” materials found at the beachside club and are assessing the “potential risk to national security” that could come from the disclosure of these documents, DNI Director Avril Haines told the chairs of the House Oversight and Intelligence committees in a new letter obtained Saturday by NBC News.
As soon as the order was posted on Twitter and lawyers and laypersons weighed in, University of Texas national security law expert Steve Vladeck said a special master's role would be limited in scope.
"Everyone’s going to read into this order more than they should. But the special master is not relitigating the warrant or the search; he or she would simply be making sure that the seized materials that the government is holding on to are materials that it has a right to possess," Vladeck wrote on Twitter.