Judge leans toward disclosure of document behind Trump home search
West Palm Beach, Florida - A federal judge in Florida said Thursday he is likely to order the release of a key court document behind the search of former US president Donald Trump's home, despite warnings from the Justice Department (DOJ) that its disclosure could "irreparably harm" an ongoing criminal investigation.
The legal fight is over an affidavit, which establishes probable cause in a criminal case, names witnesses to a potential crime, and lays out a likely path toward criminal prosecution.
Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart ordered the Justice Department to prepare redactions to the affidavit that led to the August 8 search of the former president's Mar-a-Lago estate by noon Eastern time next Thursday.
While Reinhart said he had not been convinced yet to keep the entire document under seal, the government would have another chance to argue its case on August 25.
"I'm inclined not to seal the entire affidavit," the judge said.
The Justice Department had asked the court Monday to keep the affidavit under seal in its entirety, warning that its disclosure could cause "significant and irreparable damage" to its criminal probe.
"If disclosed, the affidavit would serve as a road map to the government's ongoing investigation, providing specific details about its direction and likely course, in a manner that is highly likely to compromise future investigative steps," the government argued.
"This investigation implicates highly classified materials."
US government expresses concerns over witness safety
Also Monday, Trump said on his Truth Social network that Reinhart should release the entire, unredacted affidavit.
At the hearing, US Counterintelligence Chief Jay Bratt, representing the federal government, noted that the investigation remains open and in its early stages.
"The government is concerned for the safety of the witnesses," Bratt said, noting the increase in threats to federal law enforcement since the FBI search took place. "This is a volatile situation."
Reinhart said he planned to have an ex parte hearing with the government to review its proposed redactions, unless he is convinced otherwise. If he disagrees with the government's proposals, he said he may choose what to redact on his own.
The government will have an opportunity to appeal.
Media outlets call for affidavit's unsealing
Last week, the Justice Department moved to unseal its search warrant of Trump's Palm Beach home, revealing that 11 sets of classified material were being stored at the former president's estate.
Those included at least one set of national security documents that are among the most sensitive in the US government.
The warrant also revealed that the search was part of an investigation into potential violations of the Espionage Act, destruction of government records, and obstruction of justice.
But the Justice Department argued at the time that the affidavit "cannot responsibly be unsealed in a redacted form," absent redactions that "would be so extensive as to render the document devoid of content that would meaningfully enhance the public's understanding of these events beyond the information already now in the public record."
Several media outlets – including NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, The Associated Press, the Miami Herald, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post – nevertheless filed to intervene in the case to have the affidavit unsealed. They consolidated their arguments on Wednesday in a joint filing to the court.
The Justice Department's position, the media outlets said, "runs counter to the presumption of public access, which requires the disclosure of as much information as possible."
"The affidavit of probable cause should be released to the public, with only those redactions that are necessary to protect a compelling interest articulated by the government," the filing read.
Trump calls for publication of entire unredacted affidavit
Media organizations are not calling for the entire document to be unsealed, and have acknowledged that redactions might be necessary.
"Transparency serves the public interest," Charles Tobin, attorney for the media outlets, told the court. "You cannot trust what you cannot see."
At the hearing, all parties agreed to unseal cover sheets that accompanied the original search warrant, as well as the government's motion to keep the warrant initially sealed.
The documents, released shortly after the court hearing concluded, show that the Justice Department's basis for the search were "evidence of a crime" and of "contraband, fruits of crime, or other items illegally possessed."
Three potential offenses are outlined: willful retention of national defense information, concealment or removal of government records, and obstruction of a federal investigation.
They also show that the government requested the search warrant initially remain under seal on August 5, because the alternative could mean "the integrity of the ongoing investigation might be compromised, and evidence might be destroyed."
A spokesperson for Trump responded to the court hearing on Twitter, writing that the former president "has made his view clear that the American people should be permitted to see the unredacted affidavit related to the raid and break-in of his home." Trump's attorneys were present, but did not weigh in, at the court.
Cover photo: Collage: Giorgio VIERA / AFP & REUTERS