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Judge spares Trump from having to back up claims of planted evidence at Mar-a-Lago

Aileen Cannon, who was appointed by the former president, overruled the special master's directive to soon identify any documents allegedly planted by the FBI at Mar-a-Lago.
Image: Former President Donald Trump holds a rally on Sept. 23, 2022, in Wilmington, N.C.
Former President Donald Trump at a rally in Wilmington, N.C., on Sept. 23.Chris Seward / AP

A judge appointed by former President Donald Trump ruled Thursday that Trump does not have to submit a sworn statement identifying any evidence he believes the FBI might have planted when federal agents executed a search warrant at his Florida estate last month.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon effectively overrules a directive from the special master she named to review evidence the FBI seized in the search Aug. 8. The special master, Senior U.S. District Judge Raymond J. Dearie of New York, last week ordered Trump’s team to submit a “declaration or affidavit” about whether anything on the FBI's list of items removed from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach had not been “seized from the Premises,” meaning items that were put there by someone else.

Trump has publicly insinuated several times without offering any proof that federal agents planted evidence during their search, which the Justice Department has said turned up 100 classified, secret and top-secret documents, as well as thousands of other documents it says belong to the government.

Dearie, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, initially gave Trump's team a deadline of this Friday to submit a sworn statement about the issue, but he pushed the deadline back to next week after there was a delay in getting a vendor who could share the documents with both parties in the case. Before Thursday, he had been expected to push the deadline back again.

In her ruling, Cannon suggested she believed Dearie had overstepped with his directive. Trump's lawyers had objected to the special master's order.

"There shall be no separate requirement on Plaintiff at this stage, prior to the review of any of the Seized Materials, to lodge ex ante final objections to the accuracy of Defendant’s Inventory, its descriptions, or its contents. The Court’s Appointment Order did not contemplate that obligation," Cannon wrote Thursday.

She added that if any issues surface during the review process "that require reconsideration of the Inventory or the need to object to its contents, the parties shall make those matters known to the Special Master for appropriate resolution and recommendation to this Court."

Cannon also pushed back the deadline for Dearie to complete the review, to Dec. 16, citing both the delay in getting the documents to Trump's team and his lawyers' contention that the 11,000 documents taken from Mar-a-Lago amount to about 200,000 pages. Dearie had previously been expected to complete his review by Nov. 30.

The dual components of Thursday's ruling were seen as temporary wins for Trump; some of Cannon’s previous orders were also seen as benefiting him. She earlier granted his request for a special master and even said the special master should review the documents for potential executive privilege claims, instead of limiting the examination to traditional attorney-client issues.

Cannon had also ordered that the classified documents seized from Mar-a-Lago should be included in the special master's review and shared with Trump's lawyers and that the Justice Department's criminal investigation into how the documents were handled should be postponed until the review was completed. A federal appeals court overturned those rulings, finding that Trump had "not even attempted to show that he has a need to know the information contained in the classified documents.”