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Judge leans towards releasing redacted affidavit from Mar-a-Lago search

The Department of Justice opposes the unsealing of the document on the grounds that it could hurt the investigation into former US president Donald Trump

Mar a Lago Trump
A security guard, at the entrance to the Florida courthouse that authorized the search of Trump's estate.CHANDAN KHANNA (AFP)
Miguel Jiménez

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In theory, the media has scored a victory against the US Department of Justice (DOJ). In reality, the outcome is not so clear. Several newspapers and television networks called on the courts to release the affidavit that justified the FBI search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, on the basis that it is in the public interest. The DOJ objected on the grounds that it would harm the investigation into the former president. On Thursday, the federal judge who authorized the FBI search said he is leaning towards releasing a redacted version of the document.

The Department of Justice opposes the release of the Mar-a-Lago affidavit, even in redacted form. “The redactions necessary to mitigate harms to the integrity of the investigation would be so extensive as to render the remaining unsealed text devoid of meaningful content,” the department said in its court filing. It said that if the court ruled to lift partially unseal the affidavit, it “requests an opportunity to provide the court with proposed redactions.”

Despite objections by the Justice Department, US Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart said he believes “there are portions of the affidavit that could be unsealed.” He ordered the Justice Department to file a redacted version of the affidavit under seal by noon next Thursday, but said prosecutors will be given the opportunity to appeal if they don’t agree with his proposed version.

The Justice Department is in a difficult position. On the one hand, it risks revealing sensitive information that could compromise the investigation and “chill future cooperation” of witnesses. On the other, if the affidavit is so heavily redacted that it is incomprehensible, there is the risk that the public will believe the search of Trump’s Florida home was not warranted.

Donald Trump has requested that the affidavit be unsealed, in a rare occasion moment of agreement with the media. The more information he has about the investigation, the better prepared he will be to mount his defense. He is betting that the redacted affidavit is not going to reveal “top secret” information that could convince the public the search was justified.

“There is no way to justify the unannounced RAID of Mar-a-Lago,” Trump said in a post on his social media app Truth Social. “I call for the immediate release of the completely Unredacted Affidavit pertaining to this horrible and shocking BREAK-IN.”

The FBI search, which was approved by Reinhart on Aug. 5, is 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. Both the DOJ and Trump agreed to unseal the search warrant and the property receipt of the items seized during last Monday’s raid. This information revealed that agents were investigating potential violations of three different federal laws, and that numerous classified documents were found at his Florida home. What was not made public was the affidavit, the document in which the prosecution laid out the reasons for the unprecedented search of a former president’s home.

According to the DOJ, the affidavit “contains, among other critically important and detailed investigative facts: highly sensitive information about witnesses, including witnesses interviewed by the government; specific investigative techniques; and information required by law to be kept under seal.”

“Disclosure of the government’s affidavit at this stage would also likely chill future cooperation by witnesses whose assistance may be sought as this investigation progresses, as well as in other high-profile investigations,” it added.

Judge Reinhart, however, is inclined to unseal a redacted version of the affidavit. Whether this document is of public interest or not, or meaningful or not, is not up to him to decide, he said at Thursday’s hearing.

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