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Judge orders Justice Dept. to prepare Trump affidavit redactions, leaning toward disclosure

The federal judge in Florida gave the government a deadline of noon next Thursday.
An aerial view of former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate is seen Aug. 10 in Palm Beach.
An aerial view of former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate is seen Aug. 10 in Palm Beach. [ STEVE HELBER | AP ]
Published Aug. 18|Updated Aug. 18

A federal judge in Florida ordered Thursday that the Justice Department propose redactions to a key document supporting the Aug. 8 search of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home, opening the door to its disclosure to the public.

Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart in the Southern District of Florida told the government to propose redactions to the affidavit — which established probable cause that crimes were committed, leading to the search — by noon on Thursday, and said that he is leaning toward unsealing the document with appropriate redactions.

While Reinhart said he had not been convinced yet to keep the entire document under seal, the government would have another chance to argue its case next Thursday.

“I’m inclined not to seal the entire affidavit,” The judge said.

The Justice Department had asked the court on Monday to keep the affidavit under seal in its entirety, warning that its disclosure could cause “significant and irreparable damage” to its criminal probe.

“If disclosed, the affidavit would serve as a roadmap to the government’s ongoing investigation, providing specific details about its direction and likely course, in a manner that is highly likely to compromise future investigative steps,” the government argued. “This investigation implicates highly classified materials.”

Law enforcement stands outside of the Paul G. Rogers Federal Courthouse, Thursday in West Palm Beach. Attorneys for the nation's largest media companies, including the Tampa Bay Times, are presenting their case before a federal magistrate judge to make public the affidavit supporting the warrant that allowed FBI agents to search former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
Law enforcement stands outside of the Paul G. Rogers Federal Courthouse, Thursday in West Palm Beach. Attorneys for the nation's largest media companies, including the Tampa Bay Times, are presenting their case before a federal magistrate judge to make public the affidavit supporting the warrant that allowed FBI agents to search former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]

At the hearing, U.S. Counterintelligence Chief Jay Bratt, representing the federal government, noted that the investigation remains open and in its early stages.

“The government is concerned for the safety of the witnesses,” Bratt said, noting the increase in threats to federal law enforcement since the FBI search took place. “This is a volatile situation.”

Reinhart said he planned to have an ex parte hearing with the government to review its proposed redactions, unless he is convinced otherwise. If he disagrees with the government’s proposals, he said he may choose what to redact on his own. The government will have an opportunity to appeal.

Last week, the Justice Department moved to unseal its search warrant of Trump’s Palm Beach home, revealing that 11 sets of classified material was being stored at the former president’s estate. That included at least one set of national security documents that are among the most sensitive in the U.S. government.

The warrant also revealed that the search was part of an investigation into potential violations of the Espionage Act, destruction of government records and obstruction of justice.

Several media outlets — including the Tampa Bay Times, NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, the Associated Press, The Miami Herald, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post — asked the court to intervene in the case to have the affidavit unsealed, as well. They consolidated their arguments on Wednesday in a joint filing to the court.

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The Justice Department’s position, the media outlets said, “runs counter to the presumption of public access, which requires the disclosure of as much information as possible.”

“The affidavit of probable cause should be released to the public, with only those redactions that are necessary to protect a compelling interest articulated by the government,” the filing read.

Media organizations are not calling for the entire document to be unsealed, and have acknowledged that redactions might be necessary.

“Transparency serves the public interest,” said Charles Tobin, attorney for the media outlets. “You cannot trust what you cannot see.”

Michael Wilner reported from Washington. Omar Rodriguez Ortiz reported from Palm Beach County.

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