US: Justice Department says Trump's team may have moved classified papers amid probe

Judge is currently evaluating his request to appoint a special master who would conduct a privilege review of the documents seized



Photo: AP
Photo: AP

By Reuters

Published: Wed 31 Aug 2022, 3:32 PM

The US Justice Department said it had evidence that classified documents were deliberately concealed from the FBI — when it tried to retrieve them in June— from former President Donald Trump's Florida estate, prompting its unprecedented search of his home.

In a 54-page filing on Tuesday, prosecutors laid out their evidence of the obstruction of justice, alleging publicly for the first time that Trump aides falsely certified (in June) that the former president had returned all the government records he had stored in his home, after leaving the White House in January 2021.

It also revealed that Trump's lawyers "explicitly prohibited government personnel from opening or looking inside any of the boxes" inside a storage room, when FBI agents first travelled to his Palm Beach Mar-a-Lago resort to retrieve the records.

"The government also developed evidence that government records were likely concealed and removed from the Storage Room, and that efforts were likely taken to obstruct the government’s investigation," the department said, in a filing in a US District Court situated in the Southern District of Florida.

It released a photograph of some of the records found inside Trump's home bearing classification markings, some of which refer to clandestine human sources.

The Justice Department's filings come ahead of a court hearing before US District Judge Aileen Cannon in West Palm Beach, on Thursday. She is weighing Trump's request to appoint a special master who would conduct a privilege review of the documents seized from Mar-a-Lago on August 8, many of which are labelled as classified.

A special master is an independent third party, sometimes appointed by a court (in sensitive cases) to review materials potentially covered by attorney-client privileges, in order to ensure that investigators do not improperly view them.

A special master was appointed, for instance, in the searches of the homes and offices of two of Trump's former attorneys: Rudy Giuliani and Michael Cohen.

In Trump's initial request to the court, his attorneys claimed that the former president wanted to protect materials that were subject to a legal doctrine known as executive privilege, which can shield some presidential communications.

Legal experts called that argument into question, saying it was illogical for a former president to claim he wanted to assert executive privilege against the executive branch itself.

Trump's legal team later narrowed its request, asking for a privilege review without explicitly referring to executive privilege.

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The Justice Department on Tuesday said it opposed the appointment of a special master.

According to prosecutors, Trump lacks standing in the case because the records "do not belong to him".

The August 8 search of Trump's home was a significant escalation of one of several federal and state investigations Trump is facing.

In a redacted affidavit underpinning the search, which was released publicly by the department last week, an unidentified FBI agent said that the agency reviewed and identified 184 documents "bearing classification markings", after Trump, in January, returned 15 boxes of government records sought by the US National Archives.

After the National Archives discovered the classified material, some of which pertained to intelligence-gathering and clandestine human sources, it referred the matter to the FBI.

On Tuesday, the Justice Department stated that it had tried multiple times to get all the records back. However, ultimately, it developed evidence to suggest that more materials remained at Mar-a-lago, and had been hidden from investigators.

The FBI subsequently carted away 33 additional boxes and other items during its August 8 search, some of which were marked as "top secret" — the classification level reserved for the country's most closely-held secrets.

Trump's defenses for why he retained the materials have shifted, and he has not offered a proper reason for why he did not give all the records back.

He has previously claimed he declassified all the records, pointing to a president's broad declassification powers.

However, Tuesday's filing by the government denied this.

"When producing the documents, neither counsel nor the custodian asserted that the former President had declassified the documents or asserted any claim of executive privilege," prosecutors wrote.

They also noted that when Jay Bratt, the head of the Justice Department's counter intelligence division, visited Mar-a-lago with the three agents (in June) to recover additional records, Trump's attorney handed over records "in a manner that suggested counsel believed that the documents were classified" by producing them in a "Redweld envelope" double-wrapped in tape.

The department said that inside the envelope were 38 unique documents with classification markings — 17 of which were "top secret," 16 of which were "secret", and 5 as "confidential”.


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