Judge keen to unseal affidavit behind Trump warrant, at least in part
A federal judge indicated Thursday that he will have a decision this time next week that will ostensibly allow the public to access portions of the affidavit used to execute a search warrant on the estate of former President Donald Trump.
It was U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart who signed off on the warrant earlier this month. His latest order gives the Justice Department until midday next Thursday to submit proposed redactions for the affidavit, along with a legal memorandum outlining justification for what the department wants to keep hidden from the public.
If the judge moves forward with unsealing parts of the affidavit, it could provide more details as to what prompted the FBI to conduct an extraordinary search on the 45th president’s resort home on Aug. 8.
Shortly after Thursday’s hearing, the Justice Department filed a redacted version of the application for the search warrant, revealing that the basis of the raid was for FBI agents to look for “evidence of a crime” and “contraband, fruits of crime, or other items illegally possessed.”
The application states that the search was related to potential violations of three criminal statutes: willful retention of national defense information, concealment or removal of government records, and obstruction of a federal investigation.
According to records unsealed by the court last week, the FBI took about 20 boxes of documents, including 11 sets of classified records, from Mar-a-Lago. Among the seized materials were the grant of clemency to the former president's close ally Roger Stone, binders of photos and what is described as “info re: President of France.”
Thursday’s hearing in the federal court for the Southern District of Florida centered on an Aug. 10 motion to unseal by the conservative outfit Judicial Watch. Several news media outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, CBS News and NBC News, have since joined in the fight.
According to reporting of the hearing by the Post, attorneys for the groups argued in court Thursday that “transparency serves the public interest in understanding and accepting the results” of the affidavit.
Government attorneys meanwhile warned that disclosure of the affidavit could jeopardize “several witnesses” and a national security investigation described as is “in its early stages.”
Last week, Reinhardt approved a request by the Justice Department to unseal the search warrant and a redacted property receipt.
The search warrant application indicates FBI agents were dispatched to look for documents possessed by Trump in violation of the Espionage Act. The warrant cites three criminal laws from the act, including concealment, removal, or mutilation; gathering, transmitting or losing defense information; and destruction, alteration or falsification of record in federal investigations.
For now, the affidavit — which states probable cause for the search warrant — remains under seal.
In a motion to intervene last week, Tampa attorney Carol Jean LoCicero wrote for The New York Times that it is “typically” common practice for a court “to seal search warrant matters at least until the warrant is executed, but not in perpetuity.”
LoCicero said there is no reason to keep the rest of the search warrant materials sealed, given that the investigation has already been made public “by the target of the warrant himself.”
“Details of the investigation have appeared in publications throughout the world, members of Congress have demanded that the Justice Department provide an explanation, and political commentary on the search continues unabated,” the motion states.
LoCicero also warned that, with “so much publicity surrounding the search,” the court should “be skeptical about government claims that disclosure of this true information will invade privacy, disturb the confidentiality of an investigation, tip off potential witnesses, or lead to the destruction of evidence.”
The Justice Department meanwhile says it is concerned the disclosure would “irreparably harm” its ongoing criminal investigation.
“Even when the public is already aware of the general nature of the investigation, revealing the specific contents of a search warrant affidavit could alter the investigation’s trajectory, reveal ongoing and future investigative efforts, and undermine agents’ ability to collect evidence or obtain truthful testimony,” the department said in a response brief.
Former federal prosecutor Jennifer Rodgers told Courthouse News earlier this week that even a redacted version of the affidavit could raise problems for the FBI.
“Even though source names are not used, often sources can be identified by how they are described and the information they shared, and that could lead to a source ending his/her cooperation, or to witness tampering,” Rodgers said in an email.
Trump for his part is not contesting the motion to unseal, but he has criticized the raid as a “political witch hunt” and insists he “declassified” all the documents seized by FBI agents.
His attorney, Christina Bobb, is said to have attended Thursday’s hearing as a spectator, telling ABC News she had no plans to file or argue anything.