Special master challenges Trump lawyers on Mar-a-Lago case

Independent third party reviewing documents questions former president's claims of declassification

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Lawyers representing Donald Trump on Tuesday faced fierce challenges by a federal judge appointed as a special master in a case focused on classified documents found at the former US president's home.

“If the government gives me prima facia evidence that they are classified documents, and you don’t advance any claim of declassification, I’m left with a prima facia case of classified documents, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s the end of it,” Raymond Dearie, the special master, said at the first hearing of his review.

Mr Trump requested a third party to review documents that the FBI obtained during an August 8 search of his Mar-a-Lago home and resort in Palm Beach, Florida.

The former president and his team are being investigated for potentially violating federal law in having government documents, some with top secret classification labels, in their possession after his presidency ended in January 2021.

The request for a special master was made under Judge Aileen Cannon, whom Mr Trump appointed during his presidency.

She chose a Trump recommendation, Mr Dearie, and ordered him to complete his review by November 30.

Trump lawyer James Trusty on Tuesday told Mr Dearie that they were not ready to present a “substantive defence” on the former president's claims that he had declassified the dozens of sensitive government files found at Mar-a-Lago, but that they would do so after they saw the documents.

Mr Dearie responded: “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

The Justice Department formally asked Ms Cannon not to let the special master look at any classified documents due to national security concerns.

The special master is to set aside files that may fall under attorney-client privilege as part of his review, but the Justice Department says it has already done so as part of its own document review.

Mr Dearie on Tuesday seemed to want to avoid looking through classified material, hence his pressing of Mr Trusty to provide declassification orders from the former president.

Mr Trump has repeatedly said, without evidence, that he declassified the documents found at his home, but his lawyers have not repeated such claims in formal court filings.

Updated: September 20, 2022, 8:50 PM