Skip to main content

Judge Refuses to Immediately Rule on Trump’s Request for Special Master Review of Docs Seized at Mar-a-Lago — What to Know

President Donald Trump was photographed at a speech.

Former President Donald Trump spoke in Dallas, Texas on July 11, 2021. (Photo by Andy Jacobsohn/AFP via Getty Images.)

The federal district court judge overseeing Donald Trump’s demands for relief after FBI agents executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago has refused to rule from the bench on the former president’s request for a special master to oversee the materials seized.

The decision to reserve ruling on the matter came during a 1 p.m. Thursday hearing called by U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon. The case involves an Aug. 5 warrant and a subsequent Aug. 8 search and seizure of documents the government argues are secret and/or classified from Mar-a-Lago.

Judge Cannon said she would file a written ruling at some point in the future, according to reports from Reuters and from MSNBC.

However, Politico reporter Kyle Cheney said that Cannon appeared “poised” to grant several requests from Trump’s attorneys.

A search warrant affidavit unsealed on Aug. 26 says the FBI opened a “criminal investigation” into, “among other things,” how the documents in question were removed from the White House or any other secured location.

Trump’s attorneys filed a motion for oversight before Judge Cannon on Aug. 22 — before the affidavit was unsealed. The filing asked the judge to do the following: (1) to appoint a special master to review the material seized from the ex-president’s palatial estate, (2) to enjoin the review of seized material until a special master was appointed, (3) to require the government to provide a detailed receipt of the property seized, and (4) to require the government to return any item seized beyond the scope of the warrant.

Judge Cannon suggested on Aug. 27 a “preliminary” intent to appoint a special master but ordered the government to issue formal responses to the motion for oversight before making a final determination.  At Thursday’s hearing, Cannon reportedly seemed intent to remain on that track.  She also said — to quote Politico’s retelling of her thoughts — that she would consider “temporarily barring” the U.S. Department of Justice from reviewing the fruits of the warrant for now.

Federal prosecutors reportedly said that the ongoing probe into what happened at Mar-a-Lago involved “evidence of three significant federal crimes.”

Top secret documents recovered from Mar-a-Lago appear in an evidence photo.

Federal prosecutors say FBI agents seized these materials from Mar-a-Lago. The contents of the documents were redacted with white squares. (Image via an Aug. 31, 2022 federal court filing.)

The government responded on Aug. 30 that no special master was necessary to sort out privileged material because a separate review team operating under a different area of law had already engaged in that process. To the utter annoyance of Trump’s attorneys, the government continued to review the material, rendering the second request somewhat moot. The government provided a rather hearty assurance that a fulsome receipt would be provided and suggested that some of the other materials seized were necessary to prove parts of an apparently burgeoning case — such as who had possession of the documents in question.

Trump’s attorneys responded on Aug. 31 that their ultimate litigation strategy would play out as follows: Trump “intends to challenge” the search as a “violation of the Fourth Amendment and the Presidential Records Act.” Therefore, they wrote, the items seized are “thus subject to return (to the Movant or to his designee) under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41(g).”

In other words, Trump wants the material back, but the government says it’s not his to begin with.

A photo shows the exterior of Mar-a-Lago.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s residence at Mar-A-Lago, in Palm Beach, Florida, was photographed on August 9, 2022. (Photo by Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images.)

Trump has argued on social media that he “declassified” the secret material, but his attorneys on Wednesday said that any special master appointed in the matter should hold the proper security clearances.

The dispute between the parties has at times involved which laws apply. While Trump’s attorneys have asserted that the matter is a common dispute involving the Presidential Records Act, the U.S. Department of Justice has proffered three other statutes — 18 U.S.C. §§ 793, 2071, and 1519 — as the gravamen of the action. Those statutes are portions of the Espionage Act, a federal records act, and an obstruction of justice statute.

This is a developing story.

Have a tip we should know? [email protected]

Filed Under:

Follow Law&Crime:

Aaron Keller holds a juris doctor degree from the University of New Hampshire School of Law and a broadcast journalism degree from Syracuse University. He is a former anchor and executive producer for the Law&Crime Network and is now deputy editor-in-chief for the Law&Crime website. DISCLAIMER:  This website is for general informational purposes only. You should not rely on it for legal advice. Reading this site or interacting with the author via this site does not create an attorney-client relationship. This website is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney. Speak to a competent lawyer in your jurisdiction for legal advice and representation relevant to your situation.