A federal judge who authorized an FBI search warrant to raid former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home has rejected the government’s argument that the entire underlying affidavit must remain sealed.
In a written order Monday, Federal Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart said the Justice Department has a deadline of noon on Thursday, August 25, 2022, to submit proposed redactions to an FBI special agent’s sworn affidavit that provided the facts to support the finding of probable cause to search Trump’s home for evidence of a crime.
Reinhart said that there is reason to unseal the affidavit given “the intense public and historical interest in an unprecedented search of a former President’s residence.”
However, he agreed with the government’s argument that portions of the document need to be redacted to protect FBI sources and methods, as well as to shield from harassment witnesses who could be identified by details in the affidavit.
“The Government has met its burden of showing good cause/a compelling interest that overrides any public interest in unsealing the full contents of the Affidavit,” Reinhart wrote.
The Justice Department has opposed releasing the affidavit, arguing that its investigation into whether Trump mishandled classified documents is ongoing and still in its early stages. The DOJ said 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.”
During a hearing last week, a top Department of Justice official told Reinhart that were the document to be released, necessary redactions would be so extensive as to render it meaningless. The judge conceded that this may be the case in his written order.
“I cannot say at this point that partial redactions will be so extensive that they will result in a meaningless disclosure, but I may ultimately reach that conclusion after hearing further from the Government,” Reinhart wrote on Monday.
Media organizations and the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch have asked the court to unseal the affidavit, arguing there is extraordinary public interest in transparency about the unprecedented search and seizure at a former president’s residence. They said that Reinhart must consider that the press has “already been permitted substantial access to the contents of the records,” which have been disclosed in news reports.
However, Reinhart rejected the media’s argument, noting, “much of the information being discussed is based on anonymous sources, speculation, or hearsay; the Government has not confirmed its accuracy.”
Details of the case were also made public at the Justice Department’s request. The FBI warrant and inventory of items taken from Trump’s home were unsealed, revealing that the former president is under criminal investigation for violating the Espionage Act and the Presidential Records Act by allegedly taking classified materials with him to Mar-a-Lago after leaving the White House at the end of his term.
On Aug. 8, FBI agents executed a search and seizure at Mar-a-Lago, carrying away dozens of boxes of documents allegedly containing highly classified materials.
Trump has denied all wrongdoing and demanded the “immediate release” of the “unredacted” affidavit and warrant used to authorize the raid at his home. He has also accused the Biden administration of weaponizing law enforcement against him for political reasons.
Though Trump has called for the release of the FBI affidavit, Reinhart observed Monday that his lawyers have not filed a legal motion seeking to unseal the document.
“Neither Former President Trump nor anyone else purporting to be the owner of the Premises has filed a pleading taking a position on the Intervenors’ Motions to Unseal,” Reinhart wrote.
The highly controversial FBI raid sparked outrage among Republicans and Trump’s supporters. In the days following the raid, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security reported an increase in violent threats against federal law enforcement. Last week, an Ohio man was killed in a shootout with police after shooting a nail gun into the FBI Cincinnati headquarters and fleeing the scene. A Pennsylvania man was also arrested and charged with making violent threats against FBI agents online.
Reinhart cited the public threats to FBI agents and law enforcement in support of the government’s argument to keep portions of the affidavit sealed.
“Given the public notoriety and controversy about this search, it is likely that even witnesses who are not expressly named in the Affidavit would be quickly and broadly identified over social media and other communication channels, which could lead to them being harassed and intimidated,” the judge said.
He found “significant likelihood that unsealing the affidavit would harm legitimate privacy interests by directly disclosing the identify of the affiant as well as providing evidence that could be used to identify witnesses.”
(h/t: The Washington Post)