Mar-A-Lago Documents: Appeals Court Says DOJ Can Review Classified Records


An appeals court said Wednesday investigators from the Department of Justice can review about 100 classified documents taken from Mar-A-Lago, even as a court-appointed special master screens most of the seized records, marking a blow to former President Donald Trump and a reversal of a lower court ruling that stopped the DOJ from using the records.

US President Donald Trump speaks to reporters before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the … [+] White House in Washington, DC on March 22, 2019.

AFP via Getty Images

Key Facts

A three-judge panel from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals partially stayed an early September ruling from District Court Judge Aileen Cannon that prohibited the DOJ from accessing the seized Mar-A-Lago records until a special master can review them.

The appellate court granted the DOJ’s request to exclude roughly 100 records that were marked classified from the special master’s review.

Trump’s legal team has suggested he may have declassified the materials as president, but Trump “resisted providing any evidence,” the panel of appeals court judges—which included two Trump appointees and one Obama appointee—noted in its ruling.

The appellate court also said the declassification argument is a “red herring” because even if Trump declassified some or all of the documents, that would not explain why Trump has a personal interest in them.

Key Background

FBI agents seized troves of government documents—some of which appeared to be marked classified—from Trump’s Mar-A-Lago club last month, part of a probe into whether Trump and his staff violated federal recordkeeping and obstruction laws. Trump’s legal team asked Cannon to stop the DOJ from reviewing all of the documents until a special master can screen them for executive and attorney-client privilege, a request that Cannon granted, appointing former Judge Raymond Dearie for the role. Even though the DOJ has argued a special master is unnecessary, its appeal—filed after Cannon declined to revise her order—focused solely on excluding classified documents from the review process. Federal officials say the government needs access to the documents so it can fully assess “the possible unauthorized disclosure of the classified records.” Trump’s lawyers argued against excluding the classified documents from the special master’s review and noted that Trump had the power to declassify the materials when he was in office, but they did not actually assert that he declassified them, saying it could hurt their defense if Trump were to be indicted.

Further Reading

Mar-A-Lago Case: Special Master Skeptical Of Trump Attorneys’ Declassification Claims (Forbes)

DOJ Asks Court To Stop Special Master From Reviewing Classified Trump Mar-A-Lago Documents (Forbes)

Judge Sides With Trump, Grants Special Master To Review Mar-A-Lago Documents (Forbes)

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