Judge orders redacted affidavit used in Trump search warrant to be unsealed

The redacted affidavit would disclose important, and potentially revelatory, details about the government's justification for searching Mar-a-Lago. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - A federal judge in Florida on Thursday (Aug 25) ordered that a redacted version of the affidavit used to obtain a warrant for former US President Donald Trump's Florida residence be unsealed by noon Friday - paving the way for the disclosure of potentially revelatory details about a search with enormous legal and political implications.

The decision by Judge Bruce Reinhart came hours after the Justice Department submitted its proposal for extensive redactions to the document, in an effort to shield witnesses from intimidation or retribution if it is made public, officials said.

He appeared to accept the requested cuts.

Mr Reinhart, moving more quickly than Justice Department lawyers had expected, directed the department to release the redacted affidavit in a brief two-page order issued from US District Court in Southern Florida.

The order said that he had considered the Justice Department's proposed redactions and found them to be "narrowly tailored to serve the government's legitimate interest in the integrity of the ongoing investigation."

The redactions, he added, were also "the least onerous alternative to sealing the entire affidavit."

In its most complete form, the document would disclose important, and potentially revelatory, details about the government's justification for taking the extraordinary step of searching Mar-a-Lago on Aug 8.

The ruling is a significant legal milepost in an investigation that has swiftly emerged as a major threat to Mr Trump, whose lawyers have offered a confused and at times stumbling response.

But it is also an inflection point for Attorney-General Merrick Garland, who is trying to balance protecting the prosecutorial process by keeping secret details of the investigation, and providing enough information to defend his decision to request a search unlike any other in history.

"There are clearly opposed poles here," said former federal prosecutor Daniel Richman, who is also a law professor at Columbia University, who said it might be difficult, even impossible, for Mr Garland to strike the right balance.

Under usual circumstances, disclosing even a partial version of an affidavit would be highly unusual: Such documents, which typically include evidence gathered to justify a search, like information provided by witnesses, are almost never unsealed before the government files criminal charges.

There is no indication the Justice Department plans to file charges anytime soon.

But Mr Reinhart, recognising the significance of the government's case, had made it clear in recent days that he wanted the government to provide a far more extensive justification for the search than the bare-bones legal rationale outlined in the unsealed search warrant.

He reiterated this week that he might agree to extensive redactions, acknowledging that they could be severe enough to render release of the final document meaningless.

"I cannot say at this point that partial redactions will be so extensive that they will result in a meaningless disclosure, but I may ultimately reach that conclusion after hearing further from the government," he wrote in an order issued Monday.

Mr Anthony Coley, a Justice Department spokesperson, confirmed that the government had "filed a submission under seal" Thursday. He did not have an immediate comment on the judge's decision.

Justice Department officials had previously suggested that they will abide by his general guidance but push hard to scrub anything that could expose witnesses in the case to intimidation or retribution by Mr Trump's supporters.

Secret Service agents and other law enforcement officers outside an entrance to Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, on Aug 8, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

After the search at Mar-a-Lago, the FBI reported a surge in threats against its agents; an armed man tried to breach the bureau's Cincinnati field office, before being killed in a shootout with local police.

Mr Garland is also overseeing the sprawling investigation into the attack on the Capitol on Jan 6, 2021, which has increasingly focused on the actions of Mr Trump and his supporters.

The Attorney-General has repeatedly said he is going where the evidence leads him, unmoved by political considerations or concerns about a backlash, without "fear or favour."

The Attorney-General's unusual decision this month to call for the judge to unseal the warrant itself stemmed from a recognition that the search required public explanation, rather than refusing to comment about current investigations, as he typically does, people close to him said.

Mr Garland and his aides do not see that call, or the news conference that accompanied it, as a strategic shift. Others have. And some who back his tight-lipped caution toward the Jan 6 investigation now say he should adopt a posture of complete disclosure on the Mar-a-Lago search to defend the integrity of the investigation.

"I think anytime you search a former president's home, you have got to treat it with more transparency, and you need to disclose all the details with alacrity and quickness," said Mr John Fishwick, an Obama appointee who served as the US attorney for the Western District of Virginia from 2015 to 2017.

"All eyes are on this thing, and the public should know what is happening," he said. "Americans are smart. They can evaluate what they see, and when things are hidden from them, they get suspicious."

Mr Trump's legal team has not yet seen the affidavit. The government is not required to show it to them. But they have not opposed efforts to unseal it nor taken a position in court that it should be released.

The former president's allies, who have also not seen the document, argue that its disclosure will prove Mr Garland overreached and that Mr Trump was in his rights to retain documents he believed he had informally, but legally, declassified in his final days as president.

"I think the document is likely to show there was no good-faith reason for the raid, despite the strained analysis of the Presidential Records Act," said Mr Tom Fitton, a frequent defender of Mr Trump and the president of Judicial Watch, a conservative legal advocacy group that also sued to unseal the complete document.

There is little chance, however, that Mr Reinhart will go that far.

The full affidavit is likely to contain telling details about the Justice Department's inquiry into whether Mr Trump mishandled national defence documents and obstructed a federal investigation.

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