In a new lawsuit, former President Donald Trump has filed a motion asking that a special master be named to review the documents seized by the FBI at his Mar-a-Lago residence earlier this month. He has also asked the court to block the Justice Department from further reviewing the material until that happens, court documents filed Monday reveal.
According to the filing in the Southern District of Florida, attorneys for the former president wrote that a special master — a court-appointed monitor who would go over the evidence and review its contents for any privileged information — is necessary to protect Trump’s constitutional rights, following what they referred to as an “unprecedented” law-enforcement operation.
Calling for a “careful review process,” Trump’s attorneys also ask the Justice Department to provide them with a more detailed accounting of what the FBI took from his Florida resort and return any property not within the scope of the search warrant.
That search warrant, approved by Attorney General Merrick Garland and then the court, and later released to the public at the Justice Department’s request, revealed that investigators are probing whether federal statutes protecting national defense information were broken after documents from the Trump White House were brought from Washington, D.C., to his Palm Beach mansion in January of 2021 instead of being filed with the National Archives, as federal law requires.
The FBI collected boxes marked top secret, secret and confidential, and documents marked “top secret/sensitive compartmented information,” photos and information about the president of France, among other things, the public disclosure revealed.
Trump’s lawsuit filed Monday calls the search warrant “overbroad” and alleges investigators took “presumptively privileged” documents created during his time in office and as such, “it is unreasonable to allow the prosecutorial team to review them without meaningful safeguards.”
Monday’s filing does not address any reasoning for Trump’s bringing the documents from the White House to Mar-a-Lago in the first place, and does not refute investigators’ contentions that some of the boxes the FBI seized contained documents related to national security information.
Around 150 classified documents were found in the batch of material that Trump initially returned in January, according to one source familiar with the retrieval and another who is close to Trump. The New York Times first reported the number of classified documents in that first batch. It has not been disclosed what types of documents these were. The Times also reported Monday that the government has recovered over 300 documents with classified markings from Trump since the end of his presidency, including the January material, records provided by Trump aides in June and what the FBI seized in early August from Mar-a-Lago.
CBS News has learned filter teams have examined, and continue to examine, the documents seized to ensure that anything that should not be in the government’s possession is returned. Last week, prosecutors notified Trump’s legal team that passports belonging to the former president had, they say, been swept up in the raid and were subsequently returned after being detected by such filter teams, a law enforcement source confirmed.
But Trump’s legal team argues in its motion for a special master that “[m]erely ‘adequate’ safeguards are not acceptable when the matter at hand involves not only the constitutional rights of President Trump, but also the preservation of executive privilege.”
Until such care is taken, Trump argues, investigators should be barred from reviewing the documents and seized materials any further.
“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, Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said in a statement, “The United States will file its response in court.”
Trump’s filing also contends that the receipt of property included with the search warrant disclosure that was provided to his legal representatives upon the completion of the Aug. 8 search is insufficient and requires more detail.
The filing’s first page relies on a political argument, rather than a legal argument, to try to cast doubt on the legality of the search.
“Trump is the clear frontrunner in the 2024 Republican Presidential Primary and in the 2024 General Election, should he decide to run,” his attorneys claim on page one, before going on to accuse the government of using law enforcement “as a weapon for political purposes” in carrying out the Mar-a-Lago search.
In the days following the execution of the search warrant, Garland made an unusual statement to the media to emphasize that the search at Mar-a-Lago was a matter of “applying the law evenly.”
“Faithful adherence to the rule of law is the bedrock principle of the Justice Department and of our democracy,” the attorney general said, “Upholding the rule of law means applying the law evenly, without fear or favor. Under my watch, that is precisely what the Justice Department is doing. All Americans are entitled to the evenhanded application of the law, to due process of the law, and to the presumption of innocence.”
Nevertheless, the former president said in Monday’s filing that federal investigators “have demonstrated a willingness to treat President Trump differently than any other citizen” and claimed his attorneys attempted to pass along a message to Garland before the attorney general’s statement to the media.
According to the complaint, one of Trump’s attorneys spoke with Jay Bratt — head of the Justice Department’s Counterintelligence and Export Control section — and said, “President Trump wants the Attorney General to know that he has been hearing from people all over the country about the raid,” adding later, “Whatever I can do to take down the heart, to bring the pressure down, just let us know.”
Monday’s filing offers other alleged details about communications between Trump’s team and the Justice Department leading up to the August 8 search of Mar-a-Lago.
On May 11, a federal grand jury issued a subpoena “seeking document bearing classification markings,” according to the document, after which Trump says he complied, ordering his staff to search the boxes moved to Florida during the presidential transition. By June 3, at the invitation of Trump’s legal team, Bratt and three FBI agents traveled to Mar-a-Lago where they retrieved any responsive documents and examined the room in which they were stored, the filing contends.
Weeks later, on June 22, investigators subpoenaed footage from Mar-a-Lago’s security cameras.
Federal investigators are now looking closely at video evidence they’ve obtained, which shows people at Mar-a-Lago with access to storage areas where former President Donald Trump’s papers from his residence were being held — including some classified documents, a U.S. Official tells CBS News.
The video showing this potential access to a site with highly sensitive material remains a significant cause for concern inside the Justice Department, but a source close to Trump’s lawyers said they are aware of the video and cautioned against reading into it.
The former president’s filing comes as a magistrate judge in the same federal district is weighing whether to unseal a redacted version of the evidence that prompted the Mar-a-Lago search in the first place.
At issue is whether the media, and by extension the public, have such a vital interest in viewing the search warrant affidavit – which normally contains specific information about evidence — that Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart should take the unusual step of releasing it.
Multiple news organizations, including CBS News, have petitioned the court to unseal the affidavit, but the Justice Department countered that there is a need to “protect the integrity of an ongoing law enforcement investigation that implicates national security.”
In the face of opposition from the Justice Department, the judge wants to review proposed redactions before making a final ruling on what may be unsealed
“I cannot say at this point that partial redactions will be so extensive that they will result in a meaningless disclosure,” Reinhart wrote, addressing the Justice Department’s argument that they would so heavily redact the record that it would become worthless to the public. “I may ultimately reach that conclusion after hearing further from the Government.”
Investigative methods and the identities of FBI agents and witnesses are at stake, prosecutors argued, and releasing the record to the public might “chill” cooperation from other potential witnesses.
“We are demanding that all items wrongfully taken from my home be IMMEDIATELY returned,” Trump himself said in a statement late Monday.
Andres Triay, Robert Costa and Fin Gomez contributed to this report.