Two weeks after the FBI executed a court-approved search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s attorneys settled on a new idea. The former president’s legal team early last week asked a judge to order the appointment of a special master, who’d be responsible for reviewing the materials seized in the search of the Republican’s glorified country club.
Though the move appeared to be little more than a delaying tactic, U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon, a conservative Trump-appointed jurist, suggested over the weekend that she was inclined to grant the request and appoint a third-party overseer to ensure that the FBI didn’t retrieve materials protected by attorney-client privilege.
Cannon did, however, offer the Justice Department an opportunity to argue that a special master would be unnecessary — and as NBC News reported, that’s precisely what federal law enforcement did overnight.
The Justice Department said Tuesday night that it had evidence classified documents at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate were “likely concealed and removed” before the FBI search to retrieve them. In its late-night court filing, the Justice Department said that Trump’s request to appoint a special master to review the documents “is unnecessary and would significantly harm important governmental interests, including national security interests.”
Andrew Weissman, a longtime Justice Department veteran and an MSNBC legal analyst, wrote overnight that the Team Trump filings that led to these new disclosures were “a huge misstep.” Weissman added that the Justice Department used its latest response “to disclose damning proof of a series of crimes, which it would not otherwise have been able to do.”
Quite right. Federal law enforcement knew it had his damning evidence of alleged crimes at Mar-a-Lago, but at this point in the investigation, it couldn’t share any of this information publicly. But thanks to Team Trump and its infinite wisdom, the Republican and his attorneys effectively forced the Justice Department’s hand, insisting that federal officials make their case to a judge.
And what a case it is. The Justice Department’s filing, for example, argues that it gathered evidence “that efforts were likely taken to obstruct the government’s investigation,” with government records “likely concealed and removed” before the FBI’s search.
The implication seems to be that, as far as investigators are concerned, as Trump came to believe officials really did expect the return of the materials the former president took, he and his team may have taken deliberate steps to hide them.
The filing also added a rather brutal photograph. From the NBC News report:
The Justice Department attempted to bolster its case to the court by including an FBI photo showing documents and “classified cover sheets recovered from a container” in Trump’s “45 office,” a reference to his being the 45th president. The photo shows documents marked “secret,” “top secret” and “SCI” — which stands for highly classified “sensitive compartmented information.”
The filing added that some of the seized materials were so sensitive that FBI personnel and DOJ attorneys “required additional clearances before they were permitted to review certain documents.”
Walter Shaub, the former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, summarized the significance of this in an important and straightforward sentence: “If the FBI found these documents in your home, you would go to jail.”
And, of course, if you took steps to conceal the fact that you had these documents in your home, you would likely remain in jail.
Making matters just a bit worse, the Justice Department went on to note in its filing that a few classified documents were found in desks inside Trump’s office at Mar-a-Lago.
Again, we wouldn’t know any of this if the former president’s lawyers didn’t make an odd request for a special master. Their strategy created conditions that made their client look worse.