18th August, 2022
A U.S. judge on Thursday asked for the release of some of the evidence presented by the U.S. Justice Department to justify its search of Donald Trump’s Florida home last week.
The case pits news organisations against federal prosecutors.
Despite objections by the Justice Department, U.S. 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 Trump’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 Justice Department will be given the opportunity to appeal if prosecutors don’t agree with his proposed version.
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, the head of the department’s counterintelligence and export control section, told the judge on Thursday that releasing the affidavit is not in the public interest because it could harm the ongoing probe.
“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 search was part of a federal investigation into whether Trump illegally removed documents when he left office in January 2021 after losing the presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden.
The Justice Department is investigating violations of three laws, including a provision in the Espionage Act that prohibits the possession of national defense information and another statute that makes it a crime to knowingly destroy, conceal or falsify records with the intent to obstruct an investigation.
Attorneys for several media outlets including The New York Times, the publisher of the Wall Street Journal, ABC News and NBC News told Reinhart on Thursday that the public’s right to know and the historic significance of the search outweigh any arguments to keep the records sealed.
“The public could not have a more compelling interest in ensuring maximum transparency over this event,” said Charles Tobin, one of the attorneys arguing for the media companies.
Trump in statements on social media has called on the court to unseal the unredacted version of the affidavit “in the interest of transparency.”
But none of his attorneys has filed any motions asking the West Palm Beach federal court to do so.
His attorney Christina Bobb, however, was present in the courtroom on Thursday to observe the proceedings.
The former president says the search was politically motivated. He has also said, without providing evidence, that he had a standing order to declassify the documents in question.
However, none of the three laws cited by the Justice Department in the search warrant require a showing that the documents were in fact classified.
Threats directed at FBI agents have increased since the raid.