WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A federal judge on Thursday ordered the government to redact the highly sensitive affidavit used to justify a search warrant executed by the FBI last week at the home and private club of former President Donald J. Trump, saying he was inclined to unstick parts of it.
The judge, Bruce E. Reinhart, said it was “very important” that the public have “as much information” as they can about the historic search at Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s Florida residence, and noted that there were parts of the affidavit that “presumably could be disregarded.”
“Whether those parts would make sense to the public or the media,” Judge Reinhart added, was not for him to decide. He acknowledged that the drafting process can often be lengthy and effectively turn documents into “meaningless gibberish.”
Judge Reinhart’s decision appeared to strike a middle ground between the Justice Department, which had wanted to keep the affidavit completely secret while it continued its investigation into Mr. Trump, and a group of news organizations, who requested that it be published. entirely to the public.
Affidavits, written and sworn to by federal agents before searches are conducted, contain detailed information about criminal investigations and are almost always sealed until charges are filed.
As part of his ruling, Judge Reinhart ordered the government to send him under seal the proposed wording of the order’s affidavit by noon next Thursday. He said he will review the suggestions and decide if he agrees. But he did not set a specific date for the release of the affidavit.
“This will be a considered and careful process,” Judge Reinhart said.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to Judge Reinhart’s decision, but privately, officials said they were surprised by the decision.
The hearing, in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Florida, arose out of an effort last week by a coalition of news organizations to declassify the affidavit, a document that is supposed to reveal the contours of the investigation. more about the handling by Mr. Trump of sensitivity. files, chief among them, which led prosecutors to believe there was probable cause that evidence of a crime existed at Mar-a-Lago. Among the news organizations that made the request were The New York Times, The Washington Post and Dow Jones & Company.
However, any critical details of the investigation, including matters related to probable cause or the identity of witnesses interviewed by prosecutors, are unlikely to appear in the redacted version of the affidavit.
At the request of the Justice Department, Judge Reinhart has already unsealed the order itself and two attached files. Those documents revealed, among other things, that prosecutors have been investigating whether Mr Trump violated the Espionage Act, mishandled government records and obstructed justice by removing boxes of material from the White House at the end of the his mandate
More coverage of the FBI Search of Trump’s Home
Outside the courthouse in downtown West Palm Beach, media vans and cameras lined the street, prompting one passerby to comment that someone famous was inside. More than three dozen journalists appeared in the courtroom, wearing face masks at the request of the court. A few curious members of the public also attended.
Before the proceedings began in earnest, Judge Reinhart unsealed a few more ancillary documents related to the affidavit of order that all parties had agreed to. They include a redacted copy of the order request, the original order to seal the order, and the government’s request to seal the order.
A senior Justice Department lawyer began arguments before Judge Reinhart by conceding that the Mar-a-Lago search had attracted “heightened public interest,” but still objected to the request to strike the affidavit, saying it was “very detailed”. and reasonably long” document that would provide guidance for the department’s continued consultation with Mr. trump
Attorney Jay Bratt, head of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence and export control division, which has led the investigation from the start, noted that if the affidavit were made publicly available, it could reveal the upcoming steps in the government’s investigation and endangering the safety of his witnesses at a time when the Mar-a-Lago search had resulted in multiple threats against federal agents and others.
“This is a volatile situation in terms of this particular pursuit across the political spectrum, but certainly on one particular side,” Bratt said. “There is a real concern not only for the safety of these witnesses, but to placate other witnesses who may come forward and cooperate.”
In court documents filed Monday, prosecutors said much the same thing, vehemently opposing the affidavit being made public and arguing it offered a “roadmap” to their investigation. In their filings, prosecutors also said the release of the affidavit could prejudice “other high-profile investigations,” but did not specify which investigations they were referring to.
Under questioning by Judge Reinhart, Mr. Bratt said the department did not want to release even a redacted version of the affidavit, arguing it could set a poor precedent for future cases.
“It’s not a practice we support and we would certainly oppose it very strongly,” he said.
Speaking to the media coalition, a lawyer, Charles D. Tobin, said it was a “case of historic importance” and argued there was a strong public interest in understanding the underlying rationale. of the search.
“The raid on Mar-a-Lago by the FBI is already one of the most significant law enforcement events in the history of the country,” Tobin said, asking Judge Reinhart to provide “transparency” to the process
“You are representing the public, your honor,” said Mr. Tobin at one point. “You’re the keeper.”
Although Trump himself has taken to social media to demand the release of the affidavit, echoing similar demands made by congressional allies such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, his lawyers were conspicuously absent of the judicial process surrounding the unsealing process. At any time, Mr. Trump could have filed documents asking Judge Reinhart to make the affidavit public, but he chose not to.
In fact, one of the lawyers of Mr. Trump, Christina Bobb, appeared in court for the hearing, but only as an observer, not a participant, he told reporters. Ms. Bobb confirmed that Mr. Trump had no intention of getting involved in the arguments over the order’s affidavit.