Trump Search Affidavit Must Be Redacted Before Sealing Is Possible, Judge Says

WEST PALM BEACH, Florida — A federal judge on Thursday ordered the government to propose redactions of the highly sensitive affidavit used to justify a search warrant executed by the FBI last week at the private home and club of former President Donald J. Trump. he was inclined to unseal parts of it.

The judge, Bruce E. Reinhart, ruled from the bench that it was “very important” for the public to have as much information as possible about the historic search at Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s Florida residence, noting that that there were parts of the affidavit that “could presumably be unsealed.”

“Whether those parts would make sense to the public or the media,” added Judge Reinhart, was not for him to decide. He acknowledged that the editing process can often be elaborate and can effectively turn documents into “meaningless gibberish.”

Judge Reinhart’s decision appeared to strike a middle ground between the Justice Department, which had wanted to keep the affidavit completely hidden while investigations into Mr. Trump’s handling of classified documents continued, and a group of news organizations, which requested the release. of it. completely to the public.

Affidavits — which are written and sworn by federal agents before searches occur — contain detailed information about criminal investigations and are almost always sealed until charges are filed.

As part of his ruling, Judge Reinhart ordered the government to send him proposed redaction of the affidavit of the warrant by noon next Thursday at the latest. He said he would review the suggestions and decide if he agreed. But he has not set a specific date for the affidavit to be released.

“This will be a deliberate, careful process,” Judge Reinhart said.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to Judge Reinhart’s ruling, but privately officials said they were shocked by the decision.

The hearing, in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Florida, stemmed from an attempt last week by a coalition of news organizations to disclose the affidavit — a document that should reveal the outlines of the broader investigation into the treatment by Mr Trump of the sensitive files – the most important of these, leading prosecutors to believe there was probable cause of evidence of a crime existing in Mar-a-Lago. Among the news organizations making the request were The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Dow Jones & Company.

However, it is unlikely that critical details of the investigation, including issues related to probable cause or the identity of witnesses interviewed by prosecutors, will be included in the redacted version of the affidavit.

At the request of Justice, Judge Reinhart has already unsealed the order and two appendices. Those documents revealed, among other things, that prosecutors investigated whether Mr. Trump violated the Espionage Act, mishandled government documents and obstructed justice by removing boxes of material from the White House at the end of his term in office.

Outside the courthouse in downtown West Palm Beach, vans for news media and cameras lined the street, prompting a passerby to note that there must be a celebrity inside. At the court’s request, more than three dozen reporters entered the courtroom, wearing face masks. A few curious attendees were also present.

Before the proceedings began in earnest, Judge Reinhart unlocked a few additional documents related to the affidavit of the warrant that all parties had agreed to release. They include a redacted copy of the warrant application, the original warrant to seal the warrant, and the government’s request to seal the warrant.

A top Justice Department attorney started arguments for Judge Reinhart by admitting that the search for Mar-a-Lago had sparked “heightened public interest,” but he still resisted the request to unseal the affidavit and said it was a “very detailed and fairly lengthy” document that would guide the department’s ongoing investigation into Mr Trump.

The attorney, Jay Bratt, the head of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence and export control division, who has led the investigation from the start, noted that if the affidavit were publicly available, it could prompt the government’s next investigative steps. and endanger the security of her country. testify at a time when Mar-a-Lago’s search had resulted in multiple threats against federal agents and others.

“This is a volatile situation regarding this particular quest across the political spectrum, but certainly on one side in particular,” Bratt said. “There is a real concern, not only for the safety of these witnesses, but also to deter other witnesses who come forward and cooperate.”

In court documents filed Monday, prosecutors said much the same, vehemently objecting to the disclosure of the affidavit and arguing that it provided a “roadmap” for their investigation. In their papers, prosecutors also said the affidavit’s release could harm “other high-profile investigations,” but did not specify which investigations they referred to.

Under questioning by Judge Reinhart, Mr. Bratt said the department would not even release an edited version of the affidavit, arguing that it could set a bad precedent for future cases.

“It is not a practice that we endorse and we would certainly object very strongly to it,” he said.

Speaking to the news media coalition, a lawyer, Charles D. Tobin, said this was a “case of historic importance” and argued that there was significant public interest in understanding the underlying justification for the search.

“The FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago is already one of the most significant law enforcement events in the country’s history,” Mr. Tobin said, asking Judge Reinhart to provide “transparency” in the process.

“You come in for the public, Your Honor,” Mr. Tobin said at one point. “You are the gatekeeper.”

Although Mr Trump himself has called on social media for the affidavit to be released — following similar demands from Congressional allies such as South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham — his lawyers have been conspicuously absent from the legal process surrounding the unsealing process. Trump could have filed documents at any time asking Judge Reinhart to release the affidavit, but he chose not to.

Indeed, one of Mr. Trump’s attorneys, Christina Bobb, appeared at the courthouse for the hearing, but only as an observer, not as a participant, she told reporters. Ms. Bobb confirmed that Mr. Trump’s legal team had no intention of getting involved in the arguments over the warrant’s affidavit.

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