West Palm Beach, Florida — A federal judge is slated to hear arguments Thursday over whether to appoint a “special master” to review highly sensitive documents seized by federal agents at former President Donald Trump’s Florida home last month.
A special master is an independent, third-party attorney — often appointed by a court in high profile or sensitive cases like this one — to execute court orders or make recommendations to the court. Trump’s legal team requested the appointment of a special master last week, in what was his first move to challenge the FBI’s search at his Mar-a-Lago estate on Aug. 8.
Investigators are probing Trump’s alleged mishandling of classified material, specifically records that he took from the White House to his Mar-a-Lago residence when he left office in January 2021, as well as possible obstruction of the investigation.
U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon, who is overseeing Trump’s lawsuit over the search, last weekend signaled her “preliminary intent” to grant the former president’s request and appoint a special master, but said she had not made a final decision. She set a hearing for 1 p.m. ET on Thursday to hear arguments from the government and Trump’s attorneys over the request.
In a filing earlier this week, Justice Department attorneys argued that a special master is “unnecessary” and appointing one “would significantly harm important governmental interests, including national security interests.”
Prosecutors said the FBI had evidence that “obstructive conduct” likely occurred at Mar-a-Lago, saying that “government records were likely concealed and removed from the Storage Room” at Mar-a-Lago where Trump’s attorneys said the sensitive documents had been stored.
During the search, the government seized 33 boxes, containers or items of evidence from both the storage room and Trump’s office, the filing said. An investigative team reviewing the materials found that 13 boxes or containers contained documents with classified markings, including more than 100 unique documents with classification markings. Three documents marked classified were located in desks in Trump’s office, prosecutors said, and 76 more were found in the storage room.
The government alleged that representatives for Trump misled the Justice Department when they told investigators on June 3 that all classified material responsive to a subpoena had been returned from the former president’s residence after a “diligent” search of the property.
In their response on Wednesday, Trump’s lawyers said their actions had been “significantly mischaracterized” in the government’s filing, but declined to go into further detail. Trump attorneys Lindsey Halligan, James Trusty and Evan Corcoran signed Wednesday’s response.
The lawyers wrote that the execution of a search warrant against a former president’s home was “unprecedented, unnecessary, and legally unsupported.” They argued that without a special master, prosecutors would “impugn, leak and publicize” details of the investigation.
The attorneys for the former president also dismissed the government’s unease regarding classified material found at Mar-a-Lago, writing that the “notion that presidential records would contain sensitive information should have never been cause for alarm.”
But prosecutors have argued the sensitive records seized at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence were not his to keep, and instead belong to the federal government and the National Archives.
Notably absent from the Trump’s team response was any assertion that the former president declassified the documents at issue, as he has claimed repeatedly in the weeks since the search. The attorneys also provided no explanation as to why the documents were moved to Mar-a-Lago in the first place.
In their filing, prosecutors included a photo of some of the records seized during the search, including some with cover sheets marked “SECRET//SCI” and “TOP SECRET//SCI.”
Attorneys for the former president characterized the Justice Department’s inclusion of the photo as “gratuitous” on Wednesday, and Trump himself condemned the photo on his social media platform Truth Social. He has harshly criticized the FBI and Justice Department for the search, calling it a politically motivated attack ahead of a potential run for president in 2024.