Judge grants Trump request for special master to review documents found at Mar-a-Lago

A federal judge approved former President Trump’s request for an outside legal expert to review the files that were seized by the FBI from his Florida home. The decision temporarily blocks federal prosecutors from using any of that evidence as they investigate whether Trump broke the law. NPR's Carrie Johnson joined William Brangham to discuss what this means for the investigation.

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  • William Brangham:

    A federal judge today approved former President Donald Trump's request for an outside legal expert to review the many files that were seized by the FBI from his Florida home.

    That decision temporarily blocks federal prosecutors from using any of that evidence as they investigate whether Mr. Trump broke the law.

    For more on what this means, I am joined again by Carrie Johnson. She is the justice correspondent for NPR.

    Carrie, welcome back to the program.

    I want to talk a little bit about what this judge — this judge was appointed by former President Trump at the very tail end of his presidency, we should note. And now she issued this ruling.

    What did she say today?

  • Carrie Johnson, NPR:

    Judge Aileen Cannon in Florida basically said that this is an extraordinary circumstance, the search of a home of a former president of the United States, and she wanted to ensure that there was integrity in this process and a sense of fairness in this process.

    And so she was ordering a special master, an independent arbiter, to review something like 11,000 pages the FBI seized from Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort last month, as well as some other items. She wants this independent arbiter to look for personal items in this cache of materials, and to look for papers that may implicate either executive privilege or attorney-client privilege.

    And she said the Justice Department, in the meantime, cannot use these papers to further its active criminal investigation into alleged obstruction of justice and alleged willful retention of national defense information, among other potential crimes.

  • William Brangham:

    I wanted to help you — I want to get you to help us understand something that she wrote in her ruling.

    I want to read this quote from the ruling today. She said: "As a function of plaintiff's former position as president of the United States, the stigma associated with the subject seizure is in a league of its own. A future indictment based to any degree on property that ought to be returned would result in reputational harm of a decidedly different order of magnitude."

    Carrie, could you translate for us? What is she saying in that?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    She's basically saying that we have never had an active criminal investigation of the inner circle of a former president of the United States, and we have never had a court-appointed a search to authorize the FBI to review materials in the home of a former president.

    She is basically bending over backward to ensure fairness in this process, in part because Trump is the former president of the United States and former leader of the executive branch. But many former Justice Department officials with whom I have consulted today feel like the judge is giving Trump some treatment that many other people don't get when they're under investigation.

    Of course, Trump and no one else has been charged with wrongdoing in this investigation. But he's getting some additional layers of insulation in review in the justice system that most normal people don't get.

  • William Brangham:

    So, if this ruling stands, a special master, as you mentioned, gets appointed, who chooses that individual?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    The judge has ordered both sides, the defense, the people representing Donald Trump, and the Justice Department to get together and confer and develop a short list of possible special master candidates, send that her by Friday.

    And then the judge would choose from that list, and also, importantly, define the scope of what that special master would do. That's going to become very important moving forward. As the Justice Department has forcefully objected in court to the idea of appointing a special master, DOJ is currently reviewing its options. And it may decide it wants to appeal all of this to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

  • William Brangham:

    So let's just say an appeal does or does not happen. Let's say it goes forward.

    What does this mean for their ongoing investigation?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Well, it certainly means there's going to be some elements of delay, right?

    The DOJ says it already reviewed these materials using a special process. It took between two and three weeks to review materials for possible attorney-client privilege. It came up with something like 500 pages out of 11,000 that could be implicated. DOJ says, we don't need to do all of this again.

    But the judge has disagreed. So that process, once a master is appointed, could take two or three weeks or longer, not factoring in possible appeals and other legal wrangling. This investigation is in its early stages. And we don't know how long it's going to take.

    But, certainly, DOJ doesn't want a lot of meddling as it tries to find out what happened here and also tries to assess the national security risk to having some of these materials at a resort in Florida, when the government believes they should have belonged in secure, compartmented facilities controlled by the U.S. government.

  • William Brangham:

    And, as you touched on earlier, the judge also said that the DOJ can't use any of these documents that are in their possession now for further investigation.

    So, that means, in some ways, this — the investigation slows down or comes to a halt. Is that right?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Yes, it's not entirely clear, William, how DOJ is going to try to draw that line or whether it's going to need to seek additional guidance from the judge.

    I mean, it has already reviewed some of these papers. Maybe it's gotten some of this information from the many civilian witnesses they appear to have interviewed already in Trump's inner circle and elsewhere. But it's hard to put a line — draw a line around or a boundary around what the DOJ knows from other sources and from these materials.

    So it's a little complicated moving forward to figure out what the judge exactly wants DOJ to do and not to here. And, remember, there's this ongoing investigation by the intelligence community in the U.S. to assess national security risks. The judge says that should go on unhindered.

    But, again, it's hard to draw those lines when the FBI is a part of the intelligence community.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Carrie Johnson, thank you so much again for helping us wade through all this.

  • Carrie Johnson:

    My pleasure.

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