Palm Beach Post asking court to unseal 'entire' search warrant for Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago
Although the Justice Department on Thursday asked a federal magistrate judge to unseal a warrant that allowed FBI agents to search former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, The Palm Beach Post filed court papers to ensure the entire warrant – not just parts of it – are available to the public.
In the motion filed early Friday , the Post joined other news organizations that claim the release of all documents connected to the warrant is needed to rein in wild speculation about why the nation’s top law enforcement agency took the unprecedented step of asking to search the home of a former president.
The request to unseal the warrant, that U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced during a nationally-televised news conference, could keep key parts of the warrant off-limits to the public, said attorney Martin Reeder, who is representing the Post.
“The scope of all the warrant materials is broader than what the government is addressing,” Reeder said. “The government is only speaking to some of these documents.”
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DOJ motion simply asks to unseal search warrant, other documents
In court papers filed in U.S. District Court in West Palm Beach, federal prosecutors are asking U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart to unseal “the search warrant, including Attachments A and B, and the property receipt.”
It is unclear if an affidavit, which describes what evidence FBI agents had to justify the search, would be unsealed, Reeder said. It would contain detailed information critical to the public's understanding of what happened and why.
Federal prosecutors asked Reinhart to unseal what they identified as “Docket Entry 17 and its attachment.” But, two other docket entries are sealed. It appears they would remain so if the prosecutors’ request is approved.
Further, Reeder said, in their motion to unseal at least some of the warrant materials, they said Trump should be given time to object. If Trump opts to do so, he could raise other issues for Reinhart to consider.
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Reinhart ordered federal prosecutors to confer with Trump lawyers. He gave them until 3 p.m. Friday to tell him whether Trump intends to object.
Trump has blasted Garland for not explaining the reason for the search. Trump's team received the warrant but has declined to release it.
It appears the investigation is focused on classified or highly sensitive documents Trump may have taken to Mar-a-Lago when he left the White House. Officials at the National Archives and Records Administration retrieved 15 boxes of materials from the estate in January.
Since the FBI carried out as many as a dozen boxes from Mar-a-Lago on Monday, The New York Times, the Albany Times Union and a nonprofit activist group have filed court papers asking Reinhart to unseal the records. Late Thursday, CBS Broadcasting, the Washington Post, CNN, NBCUniversal Media and the E.W. Scripps Co. did so as well.
In their motions, all said the release of the warrant would help quell the bitter partisanship battle that has erupted. The search unleashed a torrent of recriminations, with Trump calling it an “assault that could only take place in broken, Third-World Countries.”
Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg said he understands Reinhart has been receiving threats, which prompted officials to remove his contact information and biography from the federal court’s website.
Documents would shed light amid recriminations and speculation
Attorneys for the news organizations said the release of the sealed documents would help the public understand a remarkable event in history.
“Access to all search warrant records – which currently appear to be under seal – would facilitate (the newspaper’s) efforts to inform the public of these highly newsworthy events in a timely and comprehensive manner,” wrote Tampa attorney Carol Jean LoCicero, who represents the New York Times.
Reeder said court records are a key element to news-gathering efforts to keep the public informed. He cited the Post's decades-long history of covering Trump, well before he occupied the Oval Office.
"The Post desires to continue reporting to its readers on the many newsworthy events surrounding Mr. Trump," he wrote.
Reeder said the affidavit would give a detailed account of what prompted the search and what agents expected to find. Legal experts have said probable cause affidavits remain sealed unless charges are filed.
Times' attorney cites court decisions upholding public's right to records
LoCicero cited a long list of court decisions that uphold the public’s right to court records. When the documents involve a public official – such as a former president, who has said he may seek the office again – the right is elevated, she said.
“When the conduct of public officials is at issue, the public's interest in the operation of government adds weight in the balance toward allowing permission to copy judicial records,” she wrote, quoting a 1982 court decision.
For any of the records to remain sealed, federal prosecutors have to demonstrate a “compelling interest justifying an ongoing seal,” she said. And, the government’s claims have to be specific, she said.
“Naked assertions of some interest justifying secrecy, devoid of particulars, will not justify closure,” she wrote.
That the search warrant would shed light on important questions the American public has about its government is unquestionable, she said.
"There can be no doubt that President Trump’s actions, particularly as to his potential mishandling of sensitive government records, along with the U.S. Department of Justice officials’ decision to pursue and conduct a search of a former President’s residence, is of core public concern," LoCicero wrote.
Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group that typically targets Democratic presidential administrations, was the first to ask that the search warrant be released.
The Washington-based group, which filed some 20 unsuccessful lawsuits over former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s emails, claims the documents would aid in its investigation of “the potential politicization” of the FBI and the Justice Department.
They would show whether federal law enforcement agencies are “abusing their law enforcement powers to harass a likely future political opponent of President Biden,” Miami attorney Michael Budwick wrote on behalf of the nonprofit organization.
Jane Musgrave covers federal and civil courts and occasionally ventures into criminal trials in state court. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.