Washington, DC – A United States judge has rejected the Justice Department’s request to allow investigators to continue reviewing classified documents seized from Donald Trump’s Florida home during an FBI search last month.
Judge Aileen Cannon said in a ruling late on Thursday that she will keep the temporary block in place until the files are vetted by an independent arbiter.
Separately, Cannon appointed veteran federal Judge Raymond Dearie to serve as the so-called “special master” to review the material for content that falls under attorney-client or executive privilege.
The Justice Department had appealed Cannon’s order to appoint a special master to assess the documents recovered from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate on August 8.
But earlier this week, government lawyers said they did not oppose the suggestion from Trump’s legal team to appoint Dearie to the post.
Pending their appeal, prosecutors asked Cannon to lift her suspension of the review of the classified documents, but Cannon – a Trump appointee – sided with the former president on Thursday.
“The Court does not find it appropriate to accept the Government’s conclusions on these important and disputed issues without further review by a neutral third party in an expedited and orderly fashion,” she wrote.
Dearie, the special master, will hold a first hearing on Tuesday, the Reuters news agency reported, citing a court filing.
The Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation into Trump’s possible mishandling of classified documents, and FBI agents recovered a trove of government files, including dozens of documents marked “classified”, in their search at Mar-a-Lago.
US prosecutors have argued that stopping the review of classified documents “will cause the most immediate and serious harms” to the US government and the public.
“The classified records – a discrete set of just over 100 documents – have already been segregated from the other seized records and are being maintained separately,” the Justice Department wrote in a filing to Cannon on September 8.
The Justice Department also rejects the notion that Trump has “executive privilege” as a former president. The term refers to presidents’ authority to keep secret certain types of internal communications within their administration.
The judge had allowed an intelligence community review of the materials for classified documents and potential national security risk to proceed.
Trump’s lawyers said last week that not all documents marked “classified” that were recovered from Trump’s Florida home were necessarily secret files, suggesting that the former president may have declassified them before leaving office.
Cannon appeared to agree with them on Thursday, saying that a special master is needed to sort out the files. The Justice Department had said it would ask an appeals court to allow its review to continue if Cannon’s pause was not suspended.
Cannon had been widely criticised by legal scholars, who say it is unusual for the judiciary to intervene in ongoing investigations, which risks compromising witnesses and documents.
Trump and his allies have dismissed the investigation, saying without evidence that it is politically motivated.
President Joe Biden denies having prior knowledge of the search and insists that the White House does not interfere in Justice Department-led investigations.