Judge may order release redacted affidavit for FBI’s Mar-a-Lago raid
West Palm Beach, Florida, Aug 18 (EFE).- The Florida judge who on Thursday considered the arguments in favor and against publishing the affidavit that resulted in the FBI’s raid on former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate said he might order the release of a redacted version of the document containing no sensitive material.
During a court hearing lasting more than two hours in West Palm Beach, Florida, Judge Bruce E. Reinhart heard from both sides – some of the main media outlets on the one hand and the US Department of Justice on the other – regarding the “unique case” and was said to be leaning toward publishing an edited version of the affidavit justifying the raid on Trump’s residence to recover classified documents he had taken with him when he left office and then had failed to return, despite repeated requests from the government to do so.
While the attorneys for the media outlets insisted that the public has a right to understand why the Mar-a-Lago raid was launched, the DOJ emphasized the risks to its ongoing investigation posed by revealing its motives for staging the raid.
Reinhart ended up asking the DOJ to present a proposed edited – or redacted – version of the affidavit by Aug. 25, with the parts it wants to keep hidden for the time being marked out.
The hearing took place after a week of pressure from various quarters that motivated the DOJ to allow the release of the warrant to search Trump’s retirement residence on Aug. 8.
Saying that this has never been done before, Jay Bratt, the head of the DOJ counterintelligence office, during the hearing on Thursday insisted that the affidavit contains highly sensitive information the release of which could put the entire investigation at risk.
Six attorneys, representing more than a dozen media outlets – including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, ABC, CBS and NBC – insisted that it is in the public’s interest to know the reasons for the “unprecedented investigation” into the former president.
They issued a call for the “rapid” release of the affidavit, in the keeping with “transparency” given the unique or unprecedented nature of this case and First Amendment protections, which protect the public’s right to information.
“You can’t trust what you can’t see,” said Chuck Tobin, a lawyer representing several news outlets, including The Associated Press.
So far, the order for the raid that has been released says that Trump took classified materials from the White House to his residence, and it also says that evidence of crimes – specifically violation of the Espionage Act, obstruction of justice and destruction of federal documents – existed at Mar-a-Lago.
After hearing the US government’s arguments, the judge said, “I am not prepared to find that the affidavit should be fully sealed,” adding that he thinks there are portions of the document that could potentially be unsealed, and noting that whether or not they would be meaningful would be for someone else to decide.
On Thursday, Reinhart did allow the release of another document that insists that the raid is related to the crimes cited in the affidavit.
During the hearing, Reinhart acknowledged the public interest in learning the information linked to the case involving Trump, but he also said that an investigation is also a public service.
The affidavit that some want released and others want to keep secret – at least for now – is at the heart of the investigation.
In that regard, Bratt said that this is a document that contains highly confidential information regarding witnesses in the case, technical elements of the investigation and other “critical” details.
And to those who are defending the media, Trump himself and Republican leaders, all of whom are calling for the document’s publication, the DOJ representatives warned that doing so would not only ruin the government’s investigation by alerting Trump’s team to who is implicated in the document or who it was who tipped off the FBI that Trump had not turned over all the top secret documents that had been demanded of him, and it would also pose “risks for national security.”
The DOJ also said that publishing the affidavit would weaken future cooperation from witnesses whose assistance could be requested to move forward with the investigation, as well as other high-profile investigations.
Media representatives rejected the DOJ position that the document must remain fully sealed, saying that anything that the department wants to protect could be redacted.
But Bratt responded that it would not be “practical” to publish a document with many portions redacted because it would make it either incomprehensible to the public or meaningless in general.
In any case, the media – including The Wall Street Journal, Tampa Bay Times, Palm Beach Post and The Associated Press – criticized the lack of a specific explanation about how it would damage the investigation to publish the affidavit.