September 16

By Lauren Camera

The Justice Department cannot resume its investigation of classified documents retrieved from former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence, a U.S. district court judge ruled late Thursday – a controversial decision that delays the criminal investigation into the former president and could pose national security risks.

“The Court does not find it appropriate to accept the Government’s conclusions on these important and disputed issues without further review by a neutral third party in an expedited and orderly fashion,” wrote federal Judge Aileen Cannon in a 10-page ruling that refuted department officials’ central argument that the sensitive records contain highly classified defense information that could jeopardize national security.

In addition, Cannon appointed Senior District Judge Raymond Dearie – one of the individuals proposed by Trump’s legal team – as the special master to review the records seized by the FBI last month. Dearie, a nominee of former President Ronald Reagan who has served as a federal judge in New York since the 1980s, retired in 2011 and is now a senior judge on the circuit. Trump rejected the candidates put forth by the Justice Department.

The Justice Department had requested that roughly 100 documents marked as classified be excluded from the special master review process, underscoring that the highly sensitive material seized when the FBI executed a search warrant on Trump’s Palm Beach home on Aug. 8 – recovering some 11,000 documents in total – had not been properly secured since Trump took them when he left the White House in 2021.

“There has been no actual suggestion by the Government of any identifiable emergency or imminent disclosure of classified information arising from Plaintiff’s allegedly unlawful retention of the seized property,” Cannon wrote in defiance of the request. “Instead, and unfortunately, the unwarranted disclosures that float in the background have been leaks to the media after the underlying seizure.”

The Justice Department had also asked that Cannon rule on these matters by Thursday or it would appeal her ruling appointing a special master to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

Cannon’s ruling urged Dearie to complete the review by Nov. 30 – well past the Nov. 6 midterm election, which stands to take some of the politically advantageous wind out of the sails of Democrats – though she did direct him to prioritize his review of the most highly sensitive documents, meaning the Justice Department could feasibly continue its investigation after those records are cleared.

The judge also ordered Trump to pay for Dearie’s review and urged the Justice Department to continue its investigation in other ways as the special master’s review takes place, including by “questioning witnesses and obtaining other information about the movement and storage of seized materials, including documents marked as classified, without discussion of their contents.”

The ruling is a victory for Trump and comes as the walls seem to be closing in on the former president, who is also being investigated by the Justice Department and a House Select Committee for attempting to overturn the 2020 presidential election and for his involvement in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Trump seemed to be emboldened in recent days by the Justice Department’s efforts to continue its investigation unimpeded, sharing on social media memes from conspiracy theory group QAnon and holding a meeting on his Virginia golf course with his son, Eric Trump, and other close associates – just the second time he’s been in the Washington, D.C.-area since he left the White House in January 2021.

In the wake of Cannon’s ruling, Trump blasted out at least half a dozen fundraising emails and downplayed the nature of records confiscated, saying that the Justice Department took his medical records and tax files, among other personal documents.