Mar-a-Lago search affidavit should be partly unsealed, US judge says

Media companies argue the public deserves to see details of documents FBI used to seek approval for search of Trump residence

Supporters of former US president Donald Trump drive around a courthouse in Florida during a hearing to determine if the affidavit used by the FBI as justification for last week's search of Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate should be unsealed. AFP
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A judge on Thursday said he is leaning towards releasing some of the evidence presented by the US Justice Department to justify its search of Donald Trump's Florida home last week, in a case pitting news organisations against federal prosecutors.

Despite objections by the Justice Department, US Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart said he believes "there are portions of the affidavit that could be unsealed", referring to the sworn statement laying out the evidence for why there was probable cause to search the former president's Mar-a-Lago resort.

He ordered the Justice Department to file a redacted version of the affidavit under seal by noon next Thursday, but said the agency will be given the opportunity to appeal if prosecutors do not agree with his proposed version.

Mr Reinhart's order seemed to mark a victory for news outlets, who appeared in federal court in West Palm Beach on Thursday to persuade the judge that the public interest in the affidavit outweighs the benefits of keeping it sealed.

The Justice Department opposes the release of the evidence.

Jay Bratt, head of the department's counter-intelligence and export control section, told the judge on Thursday that releasing the affidavit is not in the public interest because it could harm the investigation.

"There is another public interest at stake and that is the public interest that criminal investigations are able to go forward unimpeded," he said.

“The matter is one of utmost public interest, involving the actions of current and former government officials,” said Carol Jean LoCiero, a lawyer representing groups including The New York Times. AP, The Washington Post and CNN were also included in the media appeal.

“President Trump decried the search as an ‘assault that could only take place in Third World countries', asserted agents ‘even broke into my safe', and otherwise challenged the validity of the search.”

Mr Trump has repeatedly called for the release of the affidavit. None of his lawyers have filed a motion requesting that the federal court in West Palm Beach, Florida, does so.

He has also said, without evidence, that he had a standing order to declassify the documents in question.

Lawyers for the Justice Department said in a court filing that its investigation of Mr Trump is continuing and that documents contain sensitive information about witnesses.

The FBI's search of Mr Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort on August 8 has prompted increased threats against law enforcement officials.

In a memo circulated last week, the FBI and Homeland Security referred to “articulated threats and calls for the targeted killing of judicial, law enforcement and government officials associated with the Palm Beach search”, US media reported.

FBI agents removed 11 sets of classified documents when they searched Mr Trump's home, with some marked top secret and others as “sensitive compartmented information”, a category meant to protect the country's most important secrets.

Court records released last week did not provide details about what information the documents contain.

The records also revealed that Mr Trump is under investigation for potentially breaching three federal laws. This would include breaching the Espionage Act, which prohibits the possession of national defence information that could be used to aid a foreign adversary.

Updated: August 19, 2022, 2:03 PM