Former President Donald Trump’s legal team has asked a federal judge to appoint a “special master” to ensure the Justice Department returns any of his private documents seized during the search of Mar-a-Lago two weeks ago.
Trump is asking for a special master – a third-party attorney – to oversee the review of evidence gathered from the beach club in the criminal probe, and for the judge to pause federal investigators’ work related to the evidence until the review is done, according to a new court filing.
The new lawsuit marks the first legal filing by Trump’s team after FBI agents carried out their search on August 8 and underscores how his legal team has struggled to coalesce around a singular strategy. It has been assigned to Judge Aileen Cannon, who was nominated to the bench by Trump in 2020.
In the suit, Trump argues his constitutional rights were violated and that there may have been privileged materials seized.
Though the legal maneuver could slow down the Justice Department’s ongoing criminal investigation, Trump’s request to the federal court in South Florida could face an uphill legal battle after his team missed multiple opportunities to challenge the search.
“The Aug. 8 search warrant at Mar-a-Lago was authorized by a federal court upon the required finding of probable cause. The Department is aware of this evening’s motion. The United States will file its response in court,” Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said in response to the new filing.
The ex-President’s lawyers declined to take a position in court in the immediate aftermath of the search warrant execution. They also did not weigh in on whether the search warrant affidavit should be made public before or during a court hearing last week in West Palm Beach, Florida, even though one of his attorneys was present.
Trump, in the new filing, also asks for a more detailed receipt of what was removed from Mar-a-Lago. That request, if granted, would add to the two receipts the FBI already provided to Trump’s team describing 33 items seized, and which his attorney signed off on at the end of the search.
The Justice Department removed 11 sets of classified documents from Trump’s home, according to documents unsealed by a judge last week. The inventory shows that some of the materials recovered were marked as “top secret/SCI,” which is one of the highest levels of classification.
The department has already signaled that it is using an internal filter team to review the seized items, to separate material that could be subject to privilege claims. For instance, investigators mentioned the work of a filter team when they returned to Trump private documents that wouldn’t be part of the investigation, such as two expired passports and his diplomatic passport.
The Justice Department, in court documents, said it believed the evidence it collected at Mar-a-Lago will support its criminal investigation into the mishandling of federal records, including national defense material, after Trump’s team took boxes of records to Florida when he left office. The investigation is also looking at potential obstruction of justice in the investigation.
The Justice Department has said it has concerns that further information becoming public or known by Trump’s team could prompt witness or document tampering. And, according to CNN and New York Times reports, a lawyer for Trump told investigators in writing that no classified records were left at Mar-a-Lago after June. The FBI said in an inventory list at the end of its search that there were additional classified documents retrieved.
A federal magistrate judge in the Southern District of Florida examined the DOJ’s reasons for the search earlier this month and approved it. The judge is now weighing whether to make more details about the investigation public.
The three attorneys who signed the motion are Lindsey Halligan, Jim Trusty and Evan Corcoran. The filing included a line about politics not affecting the administration of justice.
Trump’s team gives his version of the Mar-a-Lago search
In the filing, Trump’s attorneys put forward the former President’s narrative for how the search went down, the events leading up to it and the fallout from it.
The lawsuit also recounted a message for Attorney General Merrick Garland that Trump’s lawyers gave to a top Justice Department official over the phone on August 11, a few days after the search.
“President Trump wants the Attorney General to know that he has been hearing from People all over the country about the raid,” Trump’s message said, according to the lawsuit. “If there was one word to describe their mood, it is ‘angry.’ The heat is building up. The pressure is building up. Whatever I can do to take the heat down, to bring the pressure down, just let us know.”
The filing states that at 9:10 a.m. ET on the day of the search, that same top Justice Department official – Jay Bratt, the head of the counterintelligence section in the Department of Justice’s national security division – telephoned Trump’s lawyers to tell them a search warrant was being executed at Mar-a-Lago.
“Heated discussion ensued as to why the Government did not make a voluntary request to further explore the premises, given the expansive assistance that President Trump had provided to that point,” the lawsuit said.
In Trump’s telling, the search took nine hours and involved two dozen FBI agents.
The lawsuit recounted a request from Bratt that Mar-a-Lago’s surveillance cameras be turned off – a request that the filing said was declined. Bratt also asked for the names of the Trump attorneys who may have been arriving at the search. The new lawsuit claims that Bratt rebuffed a request from Trump’s team that they be provided the affidavit.
“Among other actions taken after being notified of this unprecedented event, counsel for President Trump contacted three attorneys in the general area who agreed to go to Mar-a-Lago,” the lawsuit said. “Once they arrived, they requested the ability to enter the mansion in order to observe what the FBl agents were doing, which the Government declined to permit.”
June meeting between Trump and feds detailed
Trump’s legal team also describes, for the first time, their version of what happened in the criminal records investigation prior to the search – giving much agency to Trump himself.
At a June 3 meeting in which investigators visited Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s team states “President Trump greeted them in the dining room,” then left the agents with the parting words, “Whatever you need, just let us know.”
The investigators then inspected a storage room, which Trump authorized his lawyer to do, the filing says.
Five days later, when the Justice Department wrote a letter asking for the storage room to be secured, “President Trump directed his staff to place a second lock on the door to the storage room, and one was added,” his team writes.
Trump’s lawyers also say the former President directed the acceptance of a Justice Department subpoena in late June that sought footage from Mar-a-Lago surveillance cameras. This is the first time those investigative steps have been described in public in court.
The New York Times, citing people familiar with the matter, reported Monday that investigators have sought additional surveillance footage from Mar-a-Lago even after the search.
Trump’s disclosures could come into play as a federal magistrate judge considers transparency in the case. A lawyer for media organizations seeking access to the search warrant’s affidavit argued last week that the Justice Department’s version of events that Trump’s team has described publicly should be unsealed.
The Justice Department has said it is investigating attempts to obstruct justice as part of the probe, and CNN and other outlets have reported a lawyer for Trump represented no more classified material existed at Mar-a-Lago, before the FBI search found several sets of documents marked as classified.
In addition to asking for a special master to be appointed, Trump and his lawyers used their lawsuit as a vehicle to re-air some of his years-old grievances about the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The suit blasted “biased FBI agents” and criticized key Russia probe figures – including Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, Christopher Steele and Bruce Ohr, who all played a role in the early FBI investigation into the web of connections between Trump’s 2016 campaign and the Kremlin.
Trump brought this up in the suit as part of his argument that the Justice Department and FBI are biased against him and that the Mar-a-Lago search was meant to derail his political career.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.
CNN’s Marshall Cohen contributed to this report.