On Thursday afternoon, an extraordinary dispute unfolds in a federal courthouse in South Florida over what transparency the American public owes in the Justice Department’s investigation into the handling of classified White House documents belonging to former President Donald Trump.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart is holding a hearing at 1:00 p.m. ET at the request of several media organizations and others to unseal material secretly filed by the DOJ in his court when the department sought approval for a search warrant to the residence. of Trump in Mar-a-te. Lago.
Some of the documents have already been unsealed, with the Justice Department trying to unseal them last week and Trump not opposing their release. But some news outlets — including CNN — are pushing for more of the sealed court files related to the search to be made public. Of particular note is the affidavit that federal investigators would have had to file with the sealed court in which they set out why they believed there was probable cause that a crime had been committed and why they believed evidence of the crime existed in Mar. -a- Lago in recent days.
The Justice Department is opposing the release of the search warrant’s additional material, telling the court in a filing this week that it would “do significant and irreparable harm to this ongoing criminal investigation.”
Here’s what to look out for as news comes out of Thursday’s hearing, which will be held in person and not live streamed:
The Justice Department said in its filing that its investigation would be “irreparably damaged” if the additional materials were unsealed.
“If the affidavit is released, the affidavit would serve as a roadmap for the government’s ongoing investigation, detailing its direction and likely course, in a way that is very likely to jeopardize future investigative steps,” the filing said. of the Ministry of Justice. It specifically pointed to the threat that disclosure of information about FBI witnesses would “deter future collaboration by witnesses whose assistance may be sought as this investigation progresses, as well as in other high-profile investigations.”
The Department of Justice may try to highlight those points in a way that gives more of a sense of where the investigation stands.
While the Department of Justice was known to be investigating its handling of classified documents from the Trump White House prior to the search, news of the search has led to confirmation that the probe has taken a number of other significant steps, including FBI interviews with prominent ex-Trump officials.
Among those who have spoken to the FBI for the investigation are Trump’s White House attorney Pat Cipollone and his former deputy Patrick Philbin, as CNN and The New York Times reported Tuesday. Other Trump associates known to have been interviewed by investigators include Molly Michael, then an executive aide to Trump; Beau Harrison, a Trump operations coordinator who previously worked in the White House; former White House staff secretary Derek Lyons; and Walt Nauta, a former White House clerk.
As the Justice Department pointed out in its filing, this investigation is not just a criminal investigation, but one that “endangers national security.”
“The fact that this investigation includes highly classified materials further underscores the need to protect the integrity of the investigation and increases the potential for harm if information is disclosed prematurely or inappropriately to the public,” the Justice Department said.
Thursday’s hearing could provide some hints as to why the department was trying to conduct the search when it did.
CNN and The New York Times reported how a series of investigative steps and attempts to secure material marked as classified took place several months before the search. The National Archives had first requested and repossessed 15 boxes in January — containing some materials labeled with a classification level — prompting the agency to launch a criminal investigation. The Ministry of Justice subsequently investigated the case and major investigative steps were taken, especially in June. Investigators visited the beach club, saw where records were kept, asked the Trump team to secure them, and issued a subpoena to return them to federal hands. The Trump organization also gave investigators access to surveillance videos in response to another subpoena. That led investigators to see something on the video around a storage facility that worried them, the Times reported.
The former president is not officially a party to the dispute. Instead, the Justice Department is facing the news outlets and other organizations seeking the release of the documents. When the DOJ proposed last week to disclose the first round of warrant materials — specifically the search warrant itself and the property deed from the search — the judge instructed the department to consult with Trump and inform the court whether the former president opposed the release. of those materials. He did not and they were released Friday.
The court has since sought no further information about how Trump sees releasing more warranted material, but Trump’s views on unsealing the documents have been presented to the court in other ways. One of the groups that have asked the court to unseal the documents is Judicial Watch, a conservative group that regularly advocates transparency around government activities and documents. The organization has repeatedly flagged public statements in court that Trump has made in favor of releasing the documents. Judicial Watch has asked the court to present brief arguments at Thursday’s hearing, and there is a 9:00 a.m. ET Thursday deadline for other parties to file a lawsuit to respond to the DOJ’s opposition to the unsealing. of the documents.
Trump has called on social media for the “immediate release of the fully unedited affidavit,” but whether his team wants to weigh in in court remains to be seen.
In the dispute, Reinhart is asked to weigh the Justice Department’s reasons for keeping the documents secret against the public interest in transparency surrounding a highly newsworthy investigation. The Justice Department — by previously attempting to unlock the first round of warrant material — has already admitted that there is significant public interest that warrants some transparency about the FBI’s search. But the department has drawn the line on the release of the additional warrant documents.
The question is whether Reinhart also draws the line there.
During Thursday’s hearing, he could say what he will do from the bench. Or he could keep his cards close to his chest and wait for a later date to rule with a written order. Or Thursday’s hearing could not fully address the substance of the arguments of both parties and remained with certain procedural issues that the judge wants to settle first.
But it would be very surprising if the judge disagreed with the Justice Department. While this is an unusual situation, the secrecy surrounding an ongoing investigation is a norm in the legal system across the country. And the judge has already seen this affidavit of search warrant and can already assess the seriousness of the details in it.