Judge questions DOJ’s argument that Mar-a-Lago search affidavit must be fully sealed

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A Florida investigative judge heard arguments in person on Thursday at a media coalition’s request to release the affidavit supporting the search warrant executed last week at the Mar-a-Lago estate of the former President Donald Trump.

The Justice Department had urged Judge Bruce Reinhart to keep the affidavit sealed, arguing that if it were made public it could ’cause significant and irreparable damage’ to an ongoing criminal investigation involving elements highly classified information related to national security.

Arguing on behalf of the Justice Department on Thursday, Jay Bratt, the head of the agency’s counterintelligence and export control section, acknowledged the heightened public interest in the case, but argued that he Another public interest is the government’s position to keep the underlying affidavit sealed. as it would provide a roadmap and “suggest the next investigative steps we would be about to take”.

Bratt said the investigation was in its “early stages” and feared for the safety of witnesses and potential witnesses and the threat of “possible obstruction and interference”.

“This investigation is open. It’s in its early stages,” Bratt said.

Bratt argued that the redactions to the affidavit would not be sufficient because the information it contains could identify witnesses based on descriptions of events that only certain people would know about.

PHOTO: Armed Secret Service agents stand outside an entrance to former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate, Monday night Aug. 8, 2022, in Palm Beach, Florida.

Armed Secret Service agents stand outside an entrance to former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, Monday evening, Aug. 8, 2022, in Palm Beach, Florida.

Terry Renna/AP

After hearing the government’s arguments, Judge Reinhart said, “I am not prepared to conclude that the affidavit should be entirely sealed.”

The judge said he thought there were parts of it that could plausibly be unsealed – whether they would be significant is for someone else to decide, he said. The government may disagree with him on some points, he said, giving the DOJ until next Thursday to file its drafting proposals.

ABC News and a number of other outlets called for the release of the affidavit, noting the historic significance of the unprecedented law enforcement search of a former president’s residence and the “immediate public interest and intense as well as a vociferous reaction from Mr. Trump and his allies.”

Officials said in their Monday filing, however, that they believe the redactions that would be necessary to protect the investigation “would be so extensive as to render the remaining unsealed text devoid of meaningful content.”

The DOJ would likely seek an immediate appeal against any decision by Judge Reinhart that reveals other substantial details underlying his investigation.

PHOTO: A police car is seen outside former U.S. President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida August 8, 2022. Trump said the residence was

A police cruiser is seen outside former U.S. President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida on August 8, 2022.

Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images

The government has said, however, that it would not oppose the unsealing of other documents filed in connection with the warrant, such as the application cover sheets, the government’s motion to keep the warrant under seal and Judge Reinhart’s original sealing order – none of which will likely reveal much beyond what has already been disclosed.

The redacted copy of the search warrant released last Friday sent shockwaves through Washington as it revealed the Justice Department was investigating the potential violation of at least three separate criminal statutes in its search for Mar a Lago, including obstruction of justice and a felony under the Espionage Act.

A property receipt accompanying the warrant shows that officers seized 11 boxes of documents of various classifications, including a set referring to “classified/TS/SCI documents” (the acronym stands for top secret/sensitive compartmentalized information that everyone world does not even have a top-secret clearance can see) and four other sets of top-secret documents.

The documents were discovered by authorities after a lawyer for Trump signed a statement in June to the FBI saying all classified documents at the scene had been turned over to investigators, sources confirmed to ABC News.

Trump’s team has yet to file a lawsuit despite publicly trying to pressure the Justice Department to release the full affidavit.

Christina Bobb, who is on Trump’s legal team, said they had no plans to file anything or speak publicly, but told reporters she came to attend the hearing.

In recent days, Trump has called for the “immediate release” of the affidavit while launching various attacks on the FBI and Justice Department, while also demanding on his social media website that the documents be returned to him. But Trump’s legal team has yet to take any legal action on either front in response to the search.

Trump’s former White House attorney Pat Cipollone and former deputy White House attorney Pat Philbin are among many other witnesses the FBI is interviewing as part of its investigation, ABC News confirmed Tuesday. , with sources saying they both met with investigators in the spring. But there is no indication that the Justice Department filing referring to officials’ hopes of protecting witnesses who testified in the investigation was a direct reference to Cipollone or Philbin.

ABC News’ John Santucci contributed to this report.

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