In a strong repudiation of Donald Trump’s legal arguments, a federal appeals court on Wednesday allowed the Justice Department to resume use of classified records seized from the former president’s estate in Florida as part of its ongoing criminal investigation.
The ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit amounts to a landslide victory for the Justice Department, and paves the way for investigators to continue examining the documents as they consider filing criminal charges. for the storage of top-secret records at Mar-a-Lago after Trump left the White House. By lifting the stay on a central aspect of the department’s investigation, the court removed a hurdle that could have delayed the investigation for weeks.
The appeals court also pointedly noted that Trump had not presented evidence that he had declassified the sensitive records, as it recently held Wednesday, and rejected the possibility that Trump might have an “individual interest or need” in the information. approximately 100 documents with classification marks that were seized by the FBI in its Aug. 8 search of the Palm Beach property.
“If you’re the president of the United States, you can declassify it by simply saying ‘It’s declassified.’ Even thinking about it… You’re the president, you make that decision,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News Channel taped Wednesday before the appeals court ruling.
The government had argued that its investigation had been stymied and national security concerns had been allayed by an order by US District Judge Aileen Cannon temporarily barring investigators from further use of the documents in their investigation. Ms. Cannon, a Trump appointee, had said the hold would remain in place for her until reviewed separately by an independent arbitrator at the request of Trump’s team to review the records.
The appeals panel agreed with the Justice Department’s concerns.
“It is clear that the public has a vested interest in ensuring that the storage of classified records does not result in ‘exceptionally serious harm to national security,'” they wrote. “Verifying that,” they added, “necessarily involves reviewing the documents, determining who had access to them and when, and deciding which sources or methods (if any) are compromised.”
A court order that delayed or prevented the criminal investigation “from using classified materials risks imposing real and significant harm on the United States and the public,” they wrote.
Two of the three judges who delivered Wednesday’s ruling, Britt Grant and Andrew Brasher, were nominated for the 11th Circuit by Trump. Judge Robin Rosenbaum was nominated by former President Barack Obama.
Trump’s lawyers did not return an email seeking comment on whether they would appeal the ruling. The Justice Department had no immediate comment.
Last month, the FBI seized approximately 11,000 documents, including about 100 with classification marks, during a court-authorized search of the Palm Beach club. It has launched a criminal investigation into whether the records were mishandled or compromised, though it’s unclear whether Trump or anyone else will be charged.
Ms. Cannon ruled on September 5 that she would appoint an independent arbitrator, or special expert, to conduct an independent review of those records and segregate any that may be covered by claims of attorney-client privilege or executive privilege and determine whether any of the materials must be returned to Mr. Trump.
Raymond Dearie, a former Brooklyn-based federal court chief judge, was appointed to the position and held his first meeting Tuesday with lawyers from both sides.
The appeals court ruling appears to substantially limit the special teacher’s job description, allowing the Justice Department to avoid providing him with classified documents to review. Instead, Mr. Dearie would review the much larger tract of unclassified government documents.
The Justice Department had argued that a special master review of the classified documents was not necessary. He said Trump had no plausible basis for invoking executive privilege over the documents, nor could the records be covered by attorney-client privilege because they do not involve communications between Trump and his attorneys.
She had also contested Ms. Cannon’s order requiring her to provide lawyers for Dearie and Trump with access to the classified material. The court sided with the Justice Department on Wednesday, saying “courts should order review of such materials only in the most extraordinary circumstances. The file does not allow us to conclude that it is such a circumstance.
Although Trump’s lawyers have said that a president has absolute authority to declassify information, they notably stopped short of saying the records were declassified. This week, Trump’s team balked at providing Dearie with any information to support the idea that the records might have been declassified, saying the issue could be part of his defense in the event of an indictment.
The Justice Department has said there is no indication Trump has taken steps to declassify the documents and even included a photo in a court filing of some of the seized documents with colored covers indicating their classified status. The appeals court also made the same point.
“The plaintiff suggests that he may have declassified these documents when he was president. But the record contains no evidence that any of these records have been declassified,” the judges wrote. “In any event, at least for these purposes, the declassification argument is a red herring because declassifying an official document would not change its content or make it personal.”
This story was reported by the Associated Press.