The 11th Circuit has, as expected, vacated Aileen Cannon’s order enjoining the government from investigating Donald Trump, remanding it with an order to dismiss the suit. (Though they gave Trump seven days to appeal before the order goes into effect.)
The opinion’s key point is that, were they to rule for Trump, it would create an impossible precedent, either halting much pre-indictment access to seized material, or creating an exception only for former Presidents.
In considering these arguments, we are faced with a choice: apply our usual test; drastically expand the availability of equitable jurisdiction for every subject of a search warrant; or carve out an unprecedented exception in our law for former presidents. We choose the first option. So the case must be dismissed.
The law is clear. We cannot write a rule that allows any subject of a search warrant to block government investigations after the execution of the warrant. Nor can we write a rule that allows only former presidents to do so. Either approach would be a radical reordering of our caselaw limiting the federal courts’ involvement in criminal investigations. And both would violate bedrock separation-of-powers limitations. Accordingly, we agree with the government that the district court improperly exercised equitable jurisdiction, and that dismissal of the entire proceeding is required.
Much of the opinion is an Richey analysis–the analysis Cannon worked so hard to manufacture. It’s not all that interesting. The key point is that, as Jay Bratt told Judge Cannon on August 30, the precedent in the circuit is clear.
But in conducting a Richey analysis, which it ultimately called a “sideshow,” the opinion took repeated swipes at the efforts Cannon went to make shit up to benefit Trump.
The district court was undeterred by this lack of information. It said that “based on the volume and nature of the seized material, the Court is satisfied that Plaintiff has an interest in and need for at least a portion of it,” though it cited only the government’s filings and not Plaintiff’s. But that is not enough. Courts that have authorized equitable jurisdiction have emphasized the importance of identifying “specific” documents and explaining the harm from their “seizure and retention.” See, e.g., Harbor Healthcare Sys., L.P. v. United States, 5 F.4th 593, 600 (5th Cir. 2021) (Harbor did “far more than assert vague allegations” by pointing to “thousands” of privileged documents that the government retained for four years). Neither the district court nor Plaintiff has offered such specifics.
The opinion was even more scathing, though, in dismissing the notion that leaking classified information would harm Trump.
Plaintiff has adopted two of the district court’s arguments, dedicating a single page of his brief to discussing the first and third theories of harm. On the first argument, Plaintiff echoes the district court and asserts that he faces an “unquantifiable potential harm by way of improper disclosure of sensitive information to the public.” It is not clear whether Plaintiff and the district court mean classified information or information that is sensitive to Plaintiff personally. If the former, permitting the United States to review classified documents does not suggest that they will be released. Any official who makes an improper disclosure of classified material risks her own criminal liability. See, e.g., 18 U.S.C. § 798. What’s more, any leak of classified material would be properly characterized as a harm to the United States and its citizens—not as a personal injury to Plaintiff.
The only thing specific to Trump’s status as an ex-President, besides the opinion’s repeated reminder that he is not special, is the way with which the opinion twice dismissed Trump’s claim that if he had designated these documents his personal property under the Presidential Records Act, it would allow him to keep it. That’s nonsense, of course, because warrants authorize the seizure of personal property as a general rule.
Indeed, Plaintiff does not press the district court’s theory on appeal. Instead, he argues that the Presidential Records Act gives him a possessory interest in the seized documents. This argument is unresponsive. Even if Plaintiff’s statutory interpretation were correct (a proposition that we neither consider nor endorse), personal interest in or ownership of a seized document is not synonymous with the need for its return.3 In most search warrants, the government seizes property that unambiguously belongs to the subject of a search. That cannot be enough to support equitable jurisdiction.
Plaintiff’s alternative framing of his grievance is that he needs a special master and an injunction to protect documents that he designated as personal under the Presidential Records Act. But as we have said, the status of a document as personal or presidential does not alter the authority of the government to seize it under a warrant supported by probable cause; search warrants authorize the seizure of personal records as a matter of course. The Department of Justice has the documents because they were seized with a search warrant, not because of their status under the Presidential Records Act.
3 During discussion of this factor at oral argument, Plaintiff’s counsel noted that the seized items included “golf shirts” and “pictures of Celine Dion.” The government concedes that Plaintiff “may have a property interest in his personal effects.” While Plaintiff may have an interest in these items and others like them, we do not see the need for their immediate return after seizure under a presumptively lawful search warrant.
Here, Jim Trusty’s wails about Celine Dion really served to demonstrate how absurd the grievance was. Ultimately, Trump’s Celine Dion picture was not a sufficiently urgent piece of property to hold up a search warrant.
A very conservative panel, including two Trump appointees, just confirmed that he’s not special anymore.
In the rush to have something to say about what Special Counsel Jack Smith will do going forward, the chattering class has glommed onto this letter, signed by US Attorney for Southern Florida Juan Gonzalez under Jack Smith’s name, responding to a letter Jim Trusty sent to the 11th Circuit a day earlier. Trusty had claimed that the Special Master appointed to review the contents of Rudy Giuliani’s phones was a precedent for an instance where a judge used equitable jurisdiction to enjoin an investigation pending review by a Special Master.
The question raised was whether a court has previously asserted equitable jurisdiction to enjoin the government from using seized materials in an investigation pending review by a special master. The answer is yes. The United States agreed to this approach – and the existence of jurisdiction – in In the Matter of Search Warrants Executed on April 28, 2021, No. 21-MC-425-JPO (S.D.N.Y.) (involving property seized from Hon. Rudolph W. Giuliani) – and, under mutual agreement of the parties, no materials were utilized in the investigation until the special master process was completed. 1 See, e.g., Exhibit A. The process worked. On November 14, 2022, the United States filed a letter brief notifying the District Court that criminal charges were not forthcoming and requested the termination of the appointment of the special master. See Exhibit B. On November 16, 2022, the matter was closed. See Exhibit C.
As the government noted, none of what Trusty claimed was true: the government itself had sought a Special Master in Rudy’s case and Judge Paul Oetken had long been assigned the criminal case.
That is incorrect. As plaintiff recognizes, the court did not “enjoin the government,” id.; instead, the government itself volunteered that approach. Moreover, the records there were seized from an attorney’s office, the review was conducted on a rolling basis, and the case did not involve a separate civil proceeding invoking a district court’s anomalous jurisdiction. Cf. In the Matter of Search Warrants Executed on April 9, 2018, No. 18-mj-3161 (S.D.N.Y.) (involving similar circumstances). None of those is true here.
The government could have gone further than it did. The big difference between the Special Master appointed for Rudy and this one is that Aileen Cannon interfered in an ongoing investigation even though there was no cause shown even for a Special Master review, and indeed all the things that would normally be covered by such a review (the attorney-client privileged documents) were handled in the way the government was planning to handle them in the first place.
Josh Gerstein had first pointed to the letter to note that both Gonzalez, the US Attorney, and Smith, the Special Counsel, had submitted a document on Thanksgiving. The claim made by others that this letter showed particular toughness — or that that toughness was a sign of Smith’s approach — was pure silliness. DOJ has been debunking false claims made about the Special Master reviews of Trump’s lawyers since August. That they continue to do so is a continuation of what has gone before, not any new direction from Smith. Indeed, the most interesting thing about the letter, in my opinion, is that a US Attorney signed a letter under the authority of a Special Counsel, the equivalent of a US Attorney in seniority. If anything, it’s a testament that DOJ has not yet decided where such a case would be prosecuted, which would leave the decision to Smith.
A more useful place to look for tea leaves for Jack Smith’s approach going forward is in Mary Dohrmann’s workload — and overnight decisions about it.
Thomas Windom is the prosecutor usually cited when tracking the multiple strands of investigation into Trump’s culpability for January 6. But at least since the John Eastman warrant in August, Dohrmann has also been overtly involved. She’s been involved even as she continued to work on a bunch of other cases.
With two other prosecutors, for example, she tried Michael Riley, the Capitol Police cop convicted on one count of obstructing the investigation into January 6. In addition to Jacob Hiles (the January 6 defendant tied to Riley’s case), she has prosecuted a range of other January 6 defendants, ranging in apparent levels of import:
- Richard Barnett, trial for trespassing with a weapon and obstruction scheduled for December 12
- Vaughn Gordon, who pled to parading in September (a new prosecutor was added November 23)
- Jacob Hiles, sentenced for parading in December 2021 (with consideration for cooperation against Michael Riley)
- James Horning, pled to restricted entry in October, sentencing scheduled for January 5 (Dohrmann remains the only prosecutor on the case)
- Matthew Martin, acquitted of trespassing in a Trevor McFadden bench trial in April
- Sean McHugh, awaiting April 2023 trial for multiple counts of assault, civil disorder, obstruction (Dorhmann dropped off the case on November 22)
- Jeffrey McKellop, in plea discussions that may resolve by December 8 for multiple counts of assault and civil disorder, with potential new charges pertaining to allegedly violating the protective order
- Russell Peterson, sentenced for parading last December (Dorhmann dropped off the case in May 2021)
- Alexander Sheppard, awaiting trial for obstruction (two new prosecutors were added on November 4)
- Lori and Thomas Vinson, sentenced for parading in November 2021
- Josh Wagner and Israel Tutrow, sentenced for parading in December 2021 (Dorhmann dropped off the case in August 2021)
She has also been involved in several non-January 6 prosecutions:
- Harold Foreman, weapons possession (Dohrmann dropped off the case in March)
- Zachary Jackson, sentenced for weapons possession (Dorhmann dropped off the case in March, just before sentencing)
- Nekko Callum Johnson, sentenced for weapons possession in January 2022 (Dohrmann dropped off the case in April 2021)
- Winston Kelly, weapons possession (Dohrmann dropped of the case in March)
- Charity Keys, awaiting sentencing for bribery (a new prosecutor joined the case on November 7)
In other words, on the day Smith was appointed, Dorhman was prosecuting several January 6 defendants for trespassing, several for assault, and a cop convicted of obstructing the investigation, even as she was investigating the former President. Though she hasn’t been involved in any of the conspiracy cases, Dohrmann’s view of January 6 must look dramatically different than what you’ll see reported on cable news.
As laid out above, Dorhmann has been juggling cases since January 6; this is typical of the resource allocation that DOJ has had to do on virtually all January 6 cases. That makes it hard to tell when she started handing off cases to free up time for the Trump investigation. That said, there have been more signs she’s handing off cases — both the Vaughn Gordon and Sean McHugh cases — in the days since Smith was named.
But something that happened in the Richard Barnett case revealed how her reassignments on account of Smith’s appointment have been going day-to-day.
Back on November 21 — three days after Garland appointed Jack Smith — Richard Barnett’s attorneys filed a motion asking to delay his trial, currently scheduled for December 12. Their reasons were largely specious. They want to delay until after the DC Circuit decides whether to reverse Carl Nichols’ outlier decision that threw out obstruction charges in the context of January 6; even Nichols hasn’t allowed defendants awaiting that decision to entirely delay their prosecution. They also want to delay in hopes the conspiracy theories that the incoming Republican House majority will chase provide some basis to challenge Barnett’s prosecution.
On November 4, 2022, a Congressional report from members of the House Judiciary Committee released a one thousand page report based on whistleblowers documenting the politicization and anti-conservative bias in the FBI and the Department of Justice. This historic report will no doubt serve as a road map for probes of the agencies now that the Republicans have gained control of the House of Representatives. Included among the many allegations is the recent revelation that the FBI fabricated schemes to entrap American citizens as false flag operations for political purposes. This devastating report was compounded ten days later on November 14, 2022, by revelations that the FBI was involved in infiltrating other groups of January 6th defendants.
As a third reason, Barrnett’s team noted that one of his lawyers, Joseph McBride (who famously said he didn’t “give a shit about being wrong” when floating conspiracy theories about January 6) had to reschedule a medical procedure for the day of the pretrial conference.
Mr. Barnett’s attorney, Mr. Joseph McBride, was scheduled to have a necessary medical procedure on November 17, 2022, but due to unforeseen complication, the procedure could not be performed and must be rescheduled for December 9, 2022, the day of the pretrial conference and a few days before trial.
Per Barnett’s filing, the government objected to the delay.
Counsel for the Government stated that they will oppose this motion, however, they agreed to stay the deadline for Exhibits, due Monday November 21, 2022, until this motion is resolved. The Government also requested that a status conference be scheduled for that purpose.
According to the government response, Barnett’s attorneys first requested this delay on November 17, the day before Smith was appointed. That’s the day Barnett’s team asked the government whether they objected to a delay.
The government has diligently been preparing for trial. Under the Court’s Amended Pretrial Order, the parties were due to exchange exhibit lists on November 21, 2022. ECF No. 63. On November 17, 2022, however, defense counsel Gross contacted the government to state that the defense again wanted to continue the trial. Defense counsel also indicated that the defense was not prepared to exchange exhibit lists on November 21.
By the time the government filed their response on November 22, four days after Smiths’ appointment, DOJ had changed its mind. DOJ still thinks Barnett’s reasons for delay are bullshit (and they are). But the government cited an imminent change in the prosecution team and suggested a trial a month or so out.
As reflected in the Defendant’s motion, the government initially opposed the Defendant’s request for a continuance. Def.’s Mot. at 1. As discussed below, the government maintains that certain of the Defendant’s proffered reasons do not support a continuance of the trial. Nevertheless, the government has considered all the attendant circumstances and no longer opposes the motion. Accordingly, for the reasons set forth below, the government submits that the Defendant’s motion should be granted without a hearing, the trial date vacated, and a status hearing set to discuss new trial dates.
Finally, the government notes that while it is diligently preparing for trial, an imminent change in government counsel is anticipated. Thus, given the government’s strong interest in ensuring continuity in its trial team, coupled with the defendant’s lack of readiness, the government, in good faith, will not oppose the defendant’s continuance. Under such unique time constraints, the government therefore requests that the Court vacate the trial date, without need for a hearing, and set a new trial date and extend the remaining pretrial deadlines by 30 to 45 days. [my emphasis]
The judge in the case, Christopher Cooper, ruled on Wednesday that he will only delay the trial if both sides can fit in his schedule. In his order, he mostly trashed the defense excuses. But he noted that the government, too, should have planned prosecutorial changes accordingly.
The Court will reserve judgment on the Defendant’s 88 Motion to Continue the December 12, 2022 trial date pending receipt of a joint notice, to be filed by November 28, 2022, indicating specific dates on which the parties would be available for trial following a brief continuance. If the parties cannot offer a date that also conforms with the Court’s schedule, the Court will deny the motion and proceed with the scheduled trial. The Court finds that none of the reasons advanced in the Defendant’s motion are grounds for a continuance. This case was charged nearly two years ago, one trial date has already been vacated at the defense’s request, and the present date was set over four months ago. Defense counsel, which now number at least three, have had more than ample time to prepare for trial. The defense has not identified any material evidence that it is lacking, either from the government’s voluminous production of both case-specific and global discovery, or from other public sources. Nor is the pendency of the appeal in U.S. v. Miller an impediment to trial. This and other courts have proceeded with numerous January 6th trials involving the charge at issue in Miller. If the Circuit decides the issue in the defense’s favor, then Mr. Barnett will receive the benefit of that ruling. There is no good reason to halt the trial in the meantime. As for any anticipated change in government trial counsel, the government has been aware of the current trial date for months and should have planned accordingly. That said, the Court would be willing to exercise its discretion and grant a brief continuance should a mutually agreeable date be available. The Court notes, however, that it has a busy docket of both January 6th cases and other matters and therefore may not be able to accommodate the parties’ request. [my emphasis]
Unless and until Dorhmann spins off all her other cases, it won’t be clear whether a change in Barnett’s case indicated she expected to focus more time on Trump or that DOJ wanted to create single reporting lines through Smith (or even whether the change in prosecutorial team involved one of several other prosecutors assigned to the case).
Lisa Monaco has been micro-managing the approach to January 6 from the moment she was confirmed in April 2021. Sure, it’s certainly possible that DOJ didn’t make the final decision on whether to appoint a Special Counsel, and if so, whom, until after Trump announced he was running or until after the GOP won the House. Maybe they delayed any resource discussions until after finalizing a pick.
But depending on the reasons why DOJ changed its mind on Barnett’s case, it’s possible that his still-scheduled December 12 trial could delay the time until Smith has his team in place, by several weeks. It’s also possible DOJ will just go to trial, a high profile one that poses some evidentiary complexities, with the two other prosecutors.
As I’ve suggested above, managing the workload created by the January 6 attack has been unbelievably complex, with rolling reassignments among virtually all prosecution teams from the start. Dohrmann’s caseload is of interest only because the mix of cases she has carried range from trespassers to the former President.
But at this moment, as Smith decides how he’ll staff the investigation he is now overseeing, that caseload may create some avoidable complexities and potentially even a short delay, one that could have been avoided.
Update: In a filing not signed by Mary Dohrmann, the two sides offered January 9 as a possible trial date.
The most important part of the hearing in the stolen document case before the 11th Circuit Tuesday came when Chief Judge William Pryor asked what the 11th Circuit should do if they find for DOJ.
It seemed to me that because this is an appeal from an injunction for purposes of appellate jurisdiction, what we would do if you’re right we would vacate the injunction, vacate this order on the ground that there is a lack of equitable jurisdiction. But that would be it. What we would have jurisdiction over is not the entire case. We would have jurisdiction, if we have jurisdiction, it’s over that order, granting an injunction. Isn’t that right, technically, instead of reverse and remand, with instructions, it’s really just vacate.
If Pryor’s original view was right, it would allow DOJ to use the documents in a prosecution of Trump, but would leave Judge Aileen Cannon with the authority to still meddle in the case.
Sopan Joshi, arguing for DOJ, disagreed and walked Judge Pryor through a SCOTUS precedent that says that the Court would necessarily have the authority to reverse the decision entirely.
Joshi must have persuaded, to some degree, because Pryor decided,
If you’re right, what we’re really talking about is a middle position, that is, I was right about vacate but you’re right about the authority to remand with instructions to dismiss. Ordinarily if a District Court lacks jurisdiction, that’s what we do. We vacate and remand with instructions to dismiss.
Joshi replied, “Fair enough, and I’m not going to fight you too hard on it.
Judge Britt Grant then piped in to ask Joshi whether,
We, in your view, if we decide there was not equitable jurisdiction in the first place we wouldn’t need to go through the bases of jurisdiction for the injunction and Special Master or anything like that. The lack of jurisdiction as it was brought would resolve all the questions in your mind. Is that right?
Joshi was pretty happy with that too. “I think that’s right.”
This technical debate, which took up about a quarter of the hearing, not only betrays that at least two of the 11th Circuit Court judges are thinking of how to give DOJ what it wants, but how to do so procedurally. And they seemed persuaded, ultimately, that they should just vacate the entire Special Master appointment altogether, ending the entire Special Master process.
Things didn’t go so well for Jim Trusty, Trump’s lawyer. Just as he started to get going on claims about Biden ordering a search on a political candidate’s home (a lie), Grant interrupted and corrected his use of raid: “Do you think ‘raid’ is the right word for execution of a warrant?”
When Trusty tried to claim that this warrant had been a general warrant, Pryor scolded, “but you didn’t establish that it was a general warrant,” the first of multiple times when the judges reminded Trusty he had not made the arguments he presented today before, not before any court. Grant pointed out that Trusty was misstating what their purported goal was, which was originally to review for privilege.
Then, as Trusty reeled off the things FBI seized that, he said, were incredibly personal, Grant asked, “Do you think it’s rare for the target of a warrant to think it’s overreaching?”
She was back again, a few minutes later, as Trusty tried to argue what he thought the binding precedent should be, rather than what it was. Grant got to the core issue, which was that Trusty was asking for special treatment.
If you set aside, which I understand that you won’t want to do, but if you do for the purposes of this question, set aside the fact that the target of the search warrant was a former president, are there any arguments that would be different than any defendant, any target of a warrant who wished to challenge a warrant before an indictment.
Trusty tried to reframe her question. “We’re not looking for special treatment for President Trump. We are recognizing there is a context here where no President–”
I don’t know that that’s particularly responsive. The question was, set aside the fact that the subject of the warrant is the President. What’s to distinguish this from any other subject of a criminal investigation?
When Trusty tried to raise the concerns that he claimed Trump had had all along, Pryor responded, “I don’t see where that case has been made.” Again, Trump didn’t make the arguments he needed to, in September, to get the relief he is demanding now.
That’s when Pryor laid out the real practical problem with Trusty’s claims.
We have to determine when it’s proper for a District Court to do this in the first place, which is what we’re looking at now. And the last question was one posed that makes clear that basically, other than the fact that this involves a former President, everything else about this is indistinguishable from any pre-indictment search warrant. And we’ve got to be concerned about the precedent that we would create that would allow any target of a federal criminal investigation to go into a district court and to have a district court entertain this kind of petition, exercise equitable jurisdiction, and interfere with the Executive Branch’s ongoing investigation.
After Trusty started wailing more about personal documents, Pryor described,
You’ve talked about all these other records and property that were seized. The problem is the search warrant was for classified documents and boxes and other items that are intermingled with that. I don’t think it’s necessarily the fault of the government if someone has intermingled classified documents and all kinds of other personal property.
That’s when Trusty revealed that FBI took a picture of Celine Dion.
Dion, remember, refused Trump’s request to play his inauguration.
Now Trump’s grave injury all begins to make sense! FBI hurt him by taking his Celine Dion picture. All the wailing and screaming since August now begin to make sense.
Trusty went on blathering, claiming — for example — that the injunction hadn’t harmed the government because they had months before and after the seizure to conduct their investigation. When Trusty claimed the injunction was overblown, Pryor invited,
Think of the extraordinary nature from our perspective of an injunction against the Executive Branch in a pre-indictment situation. Under the separation of powers, the judiciary doesn’t interfere with those kinds of prosecutorial and investigatory decisions. Right? That’s the whole nature of this kind of jurisdiction.
After Pryor asked about a new argument Trusty was making, Joshi reeled off the five different arguments that Trump has advanced.
Joshi closed with the practical fear Pryor had raised: If Trump has his way, every “defendant” will demand pre-indictment intervention.
This emphasizes how anomalous and extraordinary what the district court did her was. And I heard Mr. Trusty agree that there was no difference between this and other defendants. And I think that just emphasizes how the anomalous could become commonplace. And we think the court should reverse.
Andrew Brasher seemed more sympathetic to Trusty’s arguments, at one point asking how much more of a delay this would cause, as if he might let this all play out (and that’s what would happen if the 11th didn’t entirely vacate Cannon’s order.
But ultimately, Trump was treated as if not a defendant, then at least someone who could create untenable rights for other defendants, which sounded like something neither Pryor nor Grant were willing to do.
Less than two hours before the 11th Circuit hearing that may result in Judge Aileen Cannon being reversed for intervening in the Trump investigation, Trump’s attorneys (notably excluding Chris Kise) filed a motion for access to the affidavit for his search.
That this is a transparent attempt to give Judge Cannon some basis to intervene in both the Special Master review and the 11th Circuit appeal has not stopped reporters from treating it as a reasonable request.
Even if all the claims made in it were true, it still wouldn’t provide basis to give Trump the affidavit that (among other things) identifies who he could retaliate against for cooperating with investigators.
One of the most important paragraphs (and footnote) is this one.
Moreover, Plaintiff’s counsel has reviewed most of the seized materials over the last several weeks. The fact the Government took a huge volume of personal and family photographs, newspapers, thank-you notes, campaign materials, books, and golf shirts demonstrates that this search and seizure was nothing more than a general ransacking. 7 This raises serious questions about how the affiant characterized his or her assertion of probable cause and the justification for seizing thousands of personal and private items. Plaintiff must have an opportunity to review the affidavit and determine whether the Fourth Amendment was respected, intentionally subverted, or recklessly violated by a DOJ bent on getting its nose under the Mar-a-Lago tent.
7 A general rummaging through the belongings of President Trump is a particularly ominous moment in law enforcement history. With DOJ and some state officials engaging in various efforts to investigate President Trump, the search smacks of pretextual conduct with hopes of feeding personal documents to prosecutors or agents who might find use for them in unrelated pursuits. Authorization to seize “any other containers/boxes that are collectively stored or found together with the aforementioned documents and containers/boxes” is an invitation to “rummage,” which every court has recognized as barred under the Fourth Amendment. See Andresen v. Maryland, 427 U.S. 463, 480 (1976) (quoting Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 467 (1971)). [my emphasis]
Start with the books and sweaty golf shirts. According to a part of the affidavit that Trump has not contested (the highlighted items below are the ones that changed with an updated inventory), the FBI seized a total of 33 books in the search on August 8, across 33 items seized; the bulk, 23, were all in one box together. That box was likely close to another that had multiple Top Secret documents, as well as a book. Those books got seized because they were next to stolen Top Secret documents. There was likewise a piece of clothing or a gift the box with stolen Top Secret documents. And altogether, there were just 19 gifts or pieces of clothing seized.
That’s what Trump wants you to think amounts to a ransacking.
Many of the other items are actually things about which there is an active dispute before Raymond Dearie (as noted in this filing).
For purposes of the yellow-highlighted Disputes, the Special Master will see that three issues account for the overwhelming majority of disputes. From the government’s perspective, the three conceptual issues are:
1. Annotations. – Books, magazine articles, and newspaper clippings with markings are original Presidential records.
2. Thank you notes for presidential acts or events. – Thank you notes reflecting gratitude for acts taken in the course of official duties are Presidential records.
3. Briefing book compilations with indexes. – Briefing material and other work product prepared by presidential staff for the President are Presidential records.
Trump wants to claim press clippings on which he made annotations are personal; the Presidential Records Act says otherwise. Trump wants to claim that thank you notes sent to him in his role as President are personal; the Presidential Records Act says otherwise.
Among the campaign materials taken were several letters written by Kurt Hilbert about stealing the election in Georgia, as well as something written by Cleta Mitchell. Sure, those are campaign materials. They are also evidence of a crime. They were also returned already, and could have been returned earlier had Judge Cannon not intervened.
Trump’s claim that it is unusual for the FBI to seize personal materials as part of a search warrant (bolded above) is particularly ridiculous, not least because Plain View doctrine clearly says that DOJ can refer items seized with a warrant for prosecution.
But it’s particularly notable given this language in the order appointing Jack Smith.
The Special Counsel is authorized to prosecute federal crimes arising from the investigation ofthese matters. The Special Counsel is also authorized to refer to the appropriate United States Attorney discrete prosecutions that may arise from the Special Counsel’s investigation.
It permits Smith to refer things for further prosecution, including (presumably) any evidence of a crime he sees in the materials seized from Mar-a-Lago.
At this late hour, after being reversed once already, Judge Cannon is unlikely to get further over her skis.
But it likely will come up in the hearing starting in (now) 45 minutes, so Jim Trusty can claim, for the first time, that there has been a Fourth Amendment violation that merits Judge Cannon’s intervention under Richey.
Update: Even though improper to do so procedurally, Trusty did raise this argument, over and over at the hearing (he even complained that the FBI had taken Trump’s Celine Dion photo). That led both William Pryor and Britt Grant to observe that Trump’s argument kept changing over the course of the litigation before the 11th Circuit. Sopan Joshi, arguing for DOJ, laid out five such changes.
More importantly, the Chief Judge of the 11th Circuit noted that the reason so many personal items were seized is because Trump chose to store stolen classified records with his personal belongings.
You’ve talked about all these other records and property that were seized. The problem is the search warrant was for classified documents and boxes and other items that are intermingled with that. I don’t think it’s necessarily the fault of the government if someone has intermingled classified documents and all kinds of other personal property.
I don’t think Judge Cannon will be in a position to act on this motion for very long, but I think this comment from Pryor would give her pause before she did so anyway.
A 2PM Eastern today, an 11th Circuit panel including William Pryor, Britt Grant, and Andrew Brasher will consider DOJ’s expedited motion to overturn Judge Aileen Cannon’s decision to appoint a Special Master. Oral arguments should be available here. The briefs are here:
Grant and Brasher were on the panel that already held that Cannon erred in intervening given that there was no evidence of callous disregard for Trump’s rights, so I fancy DOJ’s chances. That said, there’s no predicting how Pryor would rule, and if he were to support Trump’s support for Tom Fitton’s erroneous theory that there was no basis to question a President’s designations of something as a personal document, it might cause difficulties for an eventual prosecution.
For the reasons I laid out here, the decision the 11th Circuit makes, and how quickly they make it, will dictate how quickly DOJ could charge the stolen document case. DOJ likely has already discussed what documents they could charge without creating more national security damage. But particularly for any document that mixes classified documents with unclassified ones, DOJ first has to ensure possession of the documents they would charge before indicting (or even using the documents in interviews with Trump’s associates).
Two documents that are likely to be charged also include unclassified information:
- The 11-page document compiling a confidential document, a secret document, messages (all post-dating Trump’s presidency) from a pollster, a religious leader, and a book author, as well as a document over which Trump has claimed privilege. This document would show that someone in Trump’s office accessed classified documents after leaving the White House and may show Trump using classified documents for his own benefit. The document was stored in a desk drawer in Trump’s office.
- The packet including clemency for Roger Stone, which includes a one-page and a two-page document, one of which (presumably the information on the French President) is classified secret. This was also stored in a drawer in Trump’s office, though not necessarily the same one as the compilation. There’s no reason for Trump to include an official pardon in his desk drawer, but the tie between the Stone clemency and Macron may well explain why he did so. Given how Stone insinuated he would harm Trump if he wasn’t pardoned, the reasons Trump kept the document close at hand are likely to be quite interesting.
Trump’s team has been aggressively trying to prevent DOJ from keeping possession of these documents, by claiming that the first packet is both personal, attorney-client, and Executive privileged, and by claiming that other pardon packets can be Trump’s personal possession. It’s highly likely that Raymond Dearie will rule for DOJ on both those disputes. But if and when he does, Trump would object and Aileen Cannon would get to consider it anew.
That would make these documents unavailable for investigative purposes until after the new year. Whereas, if the 11th Circuit rules for DOJ, the government would be able to present these to a grand jury within weeks (assuming a quick decision and SCOTUS declining to review the decision, as happened with the last decision).
My impression of DOJ’s reply brief in their 11th Circuit appeal of Judge Aileen Cannon’s decision to appoint a Special Master to review the files seized from Mar-a-Lago is that they’ve gotten whatever benefit they could get from the Special Master review and now that the election pause has passed, they’re really impatient for the injunction on their investigation to be lifted so they can interview the last few witnesses. That probably includes Trump assistant Molly Michael.
The reply repeats the arguments DOJ made in their opening brief: Judge Cannon abused her authority by getting involved in a case where there was no evidence of callous disregard for Trump’s rights.
But even before that, it calls out Trump for totally changing his tack, no longer arguing that some privilege merits withholding documents from the government, but instead the Tom Fitton theory that Trump could simply convert Presidential Records into his own property by packing it in a box and shipping it to Mar-a-Lago. Since this is a new argument, it’s not proper.
None of those three filings cited Judicial Watch v. National Archives and Records Administration, 845 F. Supp. 2d 288 (D.D.C. 2012), upon which Plaintiff now relies (incorrectly) in claiming authority to convert Presidential records into “personal” records by removing them from the White House. And nowhere in those filings did Plaintiff suggest that he had exercised that purported authority with regard to the seized records—much less why that would warrant an injunction and special-master review. Rather, Plaintiff asserted that the case “center[s] around [Plaintiff’s] possession . . . of his own Presidential records,” DE.58:2 (emphasis added); see also DE.127:8 (transcript) (“What we are talking about here, in the main, are Presidential records in the hands of the 45th President of the United States.”); DE.127:9 (similar). Unsurprisingly, the district court did not rely on this novel PRA theory in issuing its injunction and appointing a special master.1 Because this argument has been “raised for the first time on appeal,” In re Dukes, 909 F.3d at 1322, it need not be considered here.
Importantly, even if the Fitton theory were true, it’d be irrelevant. DOJ had a warrant to obtain these records. Warrants authorize the seizure of personal records all the time. If Trump is lucky, DOJ suggests, he might be able to get some of these records back after DOJ closes the investigation.
Even if Plaintiff could have designated the seized records as “personal” records, that would provide no basis for an injunction or special-master review. A document’s categorization as a “personal” record does not preclude the government from obtaining it through a search warrant or using it in a criminal investigation. Law enforcement officials routinely conduct judicially authorized searches to seize evidence of crimes, see Fed. R. Crim. P. 41(c)(1), and that evidence routinely consists of personal effects, including personal papers. Nothing in the law prohibits the government from using documents recovered in a search if they are “personal,” and the search warrant here authorized the government to seize materials stored collectively with records bearing classification markings regardless of their status as “personal” or Presidential records.
Simply put, the government can review and use materials obtained in its judicially authorized search regardless of whether they are Presidential or “personal” records. At most, a record’s categorization under the PRA speaks to whether that record would be provided to NARA or returned to Plaintiff after the government’s investigation concludes.
DOJ also talks about all the ways that the Special Master process has already mooted any legitimate demand Trump might have had. DOJ returned to Trump any legitimately privileged documents, as they tried to do before Judge Cannon prevented them from doing so as to create a harm she needed to fix.
The government’s filter team has also now returned to Plaintiff a limited set of documents segregated by the filter team—as it sought to do at the very outset, see U.S. Br. 25—thus mooting any hypothetical disputes about attorney-client privilege as to those documents. See DE.138:2.
He has copies of all the non-classified documents, which would be the outcome of any successful Rule 41(g) fight.
Moreover, Plaintiff has now had an opportunity to review all of the seized records except those bearing classification markings, and the government has no objection to Plaintiff retaining copies.
Trump has conceded three potentially privileged documents found during the initial scoping were not privileged. (See this post where I explained how DOJ got Raymond Dearie to put this detail into the public record.)
The government’s opening brief noted three instances in which the investigative team, following the filter protocol and applying broad criteria, subsequently ceased review of a document and provided it to the filter team for further review. U.S. Br. 39-40. The filter team concluded that none of the three documents is privileged; and—as the public record now reflects—Plaintiff agrees. See DE.138:2 (Plaintiff not asserting privilege as to document referred to as B076); DE.158-1:1 and DE 162 (same, as to “Document 21” and “Document 22”); see also DE.148 (sealed filter team filing describing these documents).
That leaves just one fragment of a document over which Trump has claimed attorney-client privilege.
The sole remaining dispute pertains to one portion of a one-page document, see DE.182-1:1, 7 and the filter protocols originally directed by the magistrate judge provide a mechanism to resolve such disputes, see MJDE.125:31-32
Finally, Plaintiff states that after the special-master review, he “will be entitled to return of some of the seized items,” including “not only [the] privileged materials but also  the seized materials (i.e., personal records) unrelated to the investigation.” Br. 61. That assertion is wholly unsupported. At most, Plaintiff is entitled to a single page of a single document if he prevails on a disputed claim of attorney-client privilege.
7 That document was identified by the investigative team during the special-master review and, consistent with the filter protocol, it was referred to the filter team. The filter team has filed a sealed letter to the Special Master regarding its position. DE.186.
Effectively, the Special Master process has mooted any legal claim of injury Trump might have so even if Cannon had properly intervened, there’d be no point in continuing.
Which brings us to DOJ’s response to Trump’s claim that DOJ has presented no proof that the injunction on using the unclassified documents is causing harm. In its original brief, DOJ talked about the significance of the unclassified documents that are “intermingled” or “comingled” with classified documents to establish possession or timeline. This reply repeats the emphasis on “comingled” documents, but also discusses the import of when materials were “compiled.”
Second, although this Court’s stay mitigated the injunction’s most severe harms to the government and the public, the rest of the injunction has impeded the government’s investigation in other ways. The sole purpose for which the government has been permitted to review the seized unclassified records is to participate in a prolonged dispute with Plaintiff about their categorization. The government has been enjoined from using unclassified records comingled with records bearing classification markings to (for example) piece together timelines related to when these materials might have been compiled or accessed, or to question witnesses who may be familiar with these documents’ contents. Beyond that, the government cannot be expected to disclose to Plaintiff specific investigative steps that it would take absent the injunction. [my emphasis]
Which brings me to my suspicion that DOJ is anxious to interview Molly Michael with these unclassified documents.
Molly Michael was, at the end of Trump’s Administration, his Executive Assistant; she moved with him to Mar-a-Lago. Here she is, being interviewed by the January 6 Committee.
As Maggie Haberman noted days after the search, the FBI had reached out to Michael for an interview.
It’s highly likely that Michael either used or had access to the drawer in Trump’s office from which 144 items, for a total of 989 pages, were seized. All of those documents went through the privilege review and it’s likely that many of the 60-some potentially privileged documents were from that desk. Indeed, these two documents, treated as potentially privileged, are most likely from a desk that was in active use.
These two documents are ones over which Trump is making some of the most remarkable claims. According to an October 20 filing, DOJ had agreed with Trump that these were personal documents (even in spite of their reference to “POTUS), yet Trump was claiming Executive Privilege over them.
Given the Presidential Record Act rules that if a document has been shown to the President, it becomes a Presidential Record, by far the best explanation for the agreement these are personal documents over which Trump is trying to claim privilege — as I noted here — is that they reflect the Mar-a-Lago office running like his White House office used to, with his assistant, Molly, providing meeting requests and questions for Trump to review. The reference to “POTUS” cannot be a reflection of his position if and when he did review them, because if he were still POTUS, they would be Presidential Records. Rather, the moniker likely reflects that all the sycophants at Mar-a-Lago still call him POTUS.
Over the course of the privilege dispute, then, Trump provided compelling evidence that these two documents were created after he left office. He probably also confirmed that Molly Michael was the one accessing these documents.
That’s important for the document I’ve called a mini smoking gun: the document that includes a Secret document, a Confidential document, messages from a pollster, a religious leader, and a book author, as well as one page (SM_MAL_00001190) over which Trump is claiming attorney-client privilege.
One potentially privileged document that had been scanned was removed from the database (SM_MAL_00001185 to SM_MAL_00001195). That document – excluding the one potentially privileged page (SM_MAL_00001190) – is discussed in the next section about the Filter Materials Log. The potentially privileged page is the subject of a separate letter from the Filter Team to Your Honor, which is sent today.
This document is a compilation that includes three documents that post-date Plaintiff’s term in office and two classified cover sheets, one SECRET and the other CONFIDENTIAL. Because Plaintiff can only have received the documents bearing classification markings in his capacity as President, the entire mixed document is a Presidential record.
Besides the classified cover sheets, which were inserted by the FBI in lieu of the actual documents, none of the remaining communications in the document are confidential presidential communications that might be subject to a claim of executive privilege. Three communications are from a book author, a religious leader, and a pollster. The first two cannot be characterized as presidential advisers and all three are either dated or by content occurred after Plaintiff’s administration ended. [my emphasis]
This document as a whole is the one other one that Trump is trying to withhold entirely under an Executive Privilege claim over what he says is a personal document.
This is obviously a document Trump would badly like to claw back from the government — and for good reason: it is evidence that he was accessing classified records in conjunction with his business after leaving the White House.
Note the government calls it a “compilation,” the same word included in the Reply brief. The government wants to show unclassified documents to witnesses to find out when they might have been compiled.
If I’m right that this document comes from the same drawer as the Molly’s Questions for POTUS Approval documents, then she is likely the witness who can say when it was compiled. She would be the witness who could explain why Trump integrated a Secret document into his ongoing personal business. She might even testify that she saw the entire compilation, including the page over which Trump is claiming privilege, which would vitiate that privilege claim.
If I’m right, then the government is probably pretty anxious to put Molly Michael in front of a grand jury with these unclassified documents. They just need the 11th Circuit to proclaim all these Trump claims bullshit, as they’re likely to do after next week’s Tuesday hearing.
This would be a priority for another reason.
If the government is going to charge Trump, they need to find documents that are sufficiently damning to persuade the jury (and the public) that what Trump did was corrupt, but not so sensitive that agencies would refuse to declassify the documents for trial. This document, along with the Roger Stone clemency, is the sweet spot: They both include a Secret document. They both were stored in a readily accessible desk drawer. And they both reflect more personal business.
Indeed, the other most heated fight over designations, after this compilation document, pertains to a series of other clemency grants. Trump is trying to claim that documents that — by definition — could only exist in the context of his role as the President, are personal.
Filter Log Document 8 (portion) (A-023 to A-024) and
Filter Log Document 10 (A-031 to A-032)
Filter Log Document 12 (portion) (A-034 to A-035)
Filter Log Document 13 (portion) (A-041 to A-042)
The four bullet-pointed commutation analyses are Presidential records because they relate to the President’s “Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” U.S. CONST. Art. II, § 2, cl. 1. The four analyses were received by Plaintiff in his capacity as the official with authority to grant reprieves and pardons, not in his personal capacity. Plaintiff relies on Judicial Watch to “deem” the Presidential records to be personal records, but the dicta in that non-binding district court decision provide no authority to automagically recharacterize documents that are “Presidential records” within the meaning of the Presidential Records Act, 44 U.S.C. § 2201(2). See ECF 173, at 4-6 (global issues brief).
The four commutation analyses cannot be withheld from the Executive Branch on a claim of executive privilege because, among other reasons, Plaintiff may not assert the Executive Branch’s privilege to withhold documents from itself. See ECF 173, at 12-13 (global issues brief).
These are parts of the clemency packages for Ted Suhl, Rod Blagojevich, what are probably two Border Patrol agents convicted for shooting a drug smuggler, Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, and Michael Behanna, a soldier courtmartialed for killing an Iraqi prisoner. While it’s certainly possible Trump may have had corrupt purpose to hide the internal deliberations over these pardons from prosecutors, meaning they’d be evidence of a crime — albeit a different crime — themselves, this fight may also be a proxy for a fight over the Stone clemency which, unlike these four documents, includes a document classified Secret.
Trump’s lawyers may have next to no experience on Espionage Act cases. But they’re not dummies. They can figure out which documents are most likely to get Trump charged. And the ones they’re fighting hardest to claw back are the clemency packages and the “compilation.”
In fact, they’ve just spent the last two months emphasizing to the government that they believe these are the most damning documents (at least thus far), going so far as confirming that several of them post-date the time when Trump (and maybe Molly Michael) would have legal access to classified documents.
When this Special Master process started, there was the possibility that Trump might confirm things that helped DOJ prosecute him, most notably by confirming the inventory (though DOJ has made another bid to get Dearie to force this issue or deem accuracy claims to be waived).
But they did get something: They got Trump to confirm certain details, including dates, about records that were likely in his desk drawer. Which means they’ve helped prepare DOJ to interview whoever had control of that desk drawer.
As Devlin Barrett’s sources would have it, a man whose business ties to the Saudis include a $2 billion investment in his son-in-law, a golf partnership of undisclosed value, and a new hotel development in Oman would have no business interest in stealing highly sensitive documents describing Iran’s missile systems.
I’ll let you decide whether the claim, made in Barrett’s latest report on the stolen documents case, means the FBI is considering the issue very narrowly or Barrett’s sources are bullshitting him.
That review has not found any apparent business advantage to the types of classified information in Trump’s possession, these people said. FBI interviews with witnesses so far, they said, also do not point to any nefarious effort by Trump to leverage, sell or use the government secrets. Instead, the former president seemed motivated by a more basic desire not to give up what he believed was his property, these people said.
Barrett has a history of credulously repeating what right wing FBI agents feed him for their own political goals, which means it’s unclear how seriously to take this report. Particularly given several critical details Barrett’s story does not mention:
- Trump’s efforts, orchestrated in part by investigation witness Kash Patel, to release documents about the Russian investigation specifically to serve a political objective
- The report, from multiple outlets, that Jay Bratt told Trump’s lawyers that DOJ believes Trump still has classified documents
- Details about classified documents interspersed with a Roger Stone grant of clemency and messages — dated after Trump left the White House — from a pollster, a book author, and a religious leader; both sets of interspersed classified documents were found in Trump’s office
- The way Trump’s legal exposure would expand if people like Boris Epshteyn conspired to help him hoard the documents or others like Molly Michael accessed the classified records
To be sure: I think a good many of the documents Trump stole — including the most sensitive ones — were stolen as trophies. We know that’s why Trump stole his love letters with Kim Jong Un. And the visible contents of the FBI’s search photograph show that the most highly classified documents were stored along with Time Magazine covers.
But this report, from sources described as “people familiar with the matter,” bespeaks a partial view of the investigation, one Barrett hasn’t bothered to supplement (or challenge) with public records.
That description, “people familiar with the matter,” is the same one Barrett uses to remind readers that he got the scoop on the Iranian missile documents that his sources don’t think the Saudis would have any interest in, and his scoop that Trump stole documents about some country’s defense system (which, if the country is Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Israel, would be of acute interest to Trump’s golf partners, too).
The Washington Post has previously reported that among the most sensitive classified documents recovered by the FBI from Mar-a-Lago were documents about Iran and China, according to people familiar with the matter.
At least one of the documents seized by the FBI at Mar-a-Lago on Aug. 8 describes Iran’s missile program, according to these people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe an ongoing investigation. Other documents described highly sensitive intelligence work aimed at China, they said. The Post has also reported that some of the material focuses on the defense systems of a foreign country, including its nuclear capabilities.
There’s no guarantee that these “people familiar with the matter” are the same sources for both the information about the most sensitive documents Trump stole and the current understanding about Trump’s motive. It could be that Barrett is using the same vague description to protect his source(s).
But they could be the same sources. Indeed, the blind spots in Barrett’s reporting may stem from having sources familiar with the national security review of the documents, but not necessarily the ongoing investigation into it. Some of the WaPo’s past reporting on this story seems to come from people who’ve seen the unredacted affidavit, but not necessarily the investigative files.
And that’s interesting, among other reasons, because the leak to Barrett about the most sensitive documents has formed the primary harm claimed by Trump’s lawyers in filing after filing after filing, starting literally the day after Judge Aileen Cannon cited leaks in her original order enjoining the criminal investigation.
The Government is apparently not concerned with unauthorized leaks regarding the contents of the purported “classified records,” see, e.g., Devlin Barrett and Carol D. Leonnig, Material on foreign nation’s nuclear capabilities seized at Trump’s Mara-Lago, WASH. POST (Sept. 6, 2022), https://www.washingtonpost.com/nationalsecurity/2022/09/06/trump-nuclear-documents/, and would presumably be prepared to share all such records publicly in any future jury trial. However, the Government advances the untenable position in its Motion that the secure review by a Court appointed and supervised special master under controlled access conditions is somehow problematic and poses a risk to national security.
Trump cites Barrett’s work right alongside EO 13526 as “Other Authorities” central to Trump’s argument:
In any case, given the precedent of Nghia Pho (which may still be the only 18 USC 793 case cited by DOJ in this proceeding), it may not matter if Trump stole all or only some of these documents because he’s a narcissist. Trump brought a stack of classified documents to a foreign intelligence target and left them unprotected as multiple suspect foreigners infiltrated his resort. He continued to hoard such documents even after it was publicly reported that he had brought classified documents home.
During Trump’s Administration two men were sent to prison because, by bringing highly classified documents home for motives that had nothing to do with leaking, they made the documents accessible to Russian-linked sources, actions that ultimately led to a devastating compromise of US intelligence resources. Under Donald Trump’s DOJ, Pho and Hal Martin were not given a pass because they were serving their own ego.
So there’s no reason Trump’s narcissism, alone, should be a basis not to charge him.
The focus of both filings address what DOJ calls Trump’s gamesmanship but which is basically the kind of Calvinball that Judge Aileen Cannon appears to love. For many, if not most, of the 2,916 documents at issue, Trump’s argument appears to be:
- If valuable then Tom Fitton (meaning, the misapplied argument that the President can designate anything “personal” and therefore effectively take possession of Presidential Records merely by sticking it in a box)
- If not Tom Fitton, then Executive Privilege (meaning, if Raymond Dearie is not impressed by misapplied Tom Fitton logic, then he should allow Trump to withhold documents under a privilege claim)
DOJ provides a lot of reasons that’s nonsense, including that if Trump thinks something is personal then it obviously can’t be privileged.
A key part of the argument, however, is that even if Trump were able to invoke Executive Privilege against the government, DOJ would overcome that here because of the criminal investigation.
Plaintiff’s assertions of executive privilege fail under United States v. Nixon, because the government has a “demonstrated, specific need” for the seized records in its ongoing criminal investigation. 4
4 Because the government satisfies United States v. Nixon’s “demonstrated, specific need” test, which applies to a sitting President, the Court need not consider Plaintiff’s status as a former President for purposes of this analysis. [citations omitted]
Trump dodges addressing the Nixon standard by complaining that he hasn’t seen the unsealed affidavit that authorized the search, and so the government has failed to reach the Nixon standard.
Although crucial to the executive branch’s decision-making processes, executive privilege is neither absolute nor unqualified. Nixon, 418 U.S. at 706. Rather, the Supreme Court has recognized that the privilege must “yield to the demonstrated, specific needs for evidence in a pending criminal trial.” Id. at 713. In providing this standard, the Supreme Court clarified that in order to overcome an assertion of executive privilege, the party seeking the privileged material must “clear three hurdles: (1) relevancy; (2) admissibility; and (3) specificity.” Nixon, 418 U.S. at 700. The Supreme Court again affirmed this standard in Cheney v. U.S. Dist. Court for Dist. of Columbia, 542 U.S. 367, 386 (2004).
Currently, the affidavit in support of the search warrant which authorized the search of Mar-a-Lago is under seal, and, therefore, inaccessible to Plaintiff. Plaintiff is therefore unaware of the specific arguments relied upon by the Magistrate in issuing the warrant authorizing seizure of the documents at issue. Given that, Plaintiff must take the position that the Government has failed to clear the three hurdles articulated by the Court in Nixon.
In other words, in a civil challenge to a lawful warrant, Trump is saying he should be able to retain stuff by default until he has seen the warrant against him.
Which is one reason why something else the government does is so interesting. It asks Dearie to recommend that Judge Cannon lift the injunction on all the documents — 2,794 out of 2,916 — over which Trump has not invoked either Executive and/or Attorney-Client privilege.
Finally, as the government has noted previously, the categorization of the records at issue as Presidential or personal does not ultimately affect the government’s ability to use and review them for criminal investigative purposes. See D.E. 150 at 4 n.*. Plaintiff has asserted attorney-client privilege only as to one document out of 2,916 documents at issue here, and Plaintiff has asserted executive privilege as to only 121 documents. As to the remaining 2,794 documents, Plaintiff does not assert any privilege that would bar the government’s further review and use of these materials for purposes of the ongoing criminal investigation. Although Plaintiff and the government disagree as to the proper categorization of numerous records as “personal” or “Presidential” for the purposes of PRA, neither categorization would supply a basis to restrict the government’s review and use of those records. Indeed, personal records that are not Presidential records or government property are seized every day for use in criminal investigations. Thus, absent any specific justification from Plaintiff for continuing to restrict the government’s review and use of the 2,794 records for which Plaintiff has not asserted any privilege, there is no reason to maintain the Court’s injunction as those those records.
This takes Judge Cannon’s premise on its face, as if this is just a normal Special Master review to ensure that the government doesn’t access any privileged documents for an investigation. If that were the case, she would easily approve the sharing of all documents over which the plaintiff had not made any privilege claim.
It may or may not work. But if Dearie were to act on this request immediately, then Cannon would either have to override it or grant it before the 11th Circuit makes its final decision on the appeal. Judge Cannon’s intervention is inappropriate on its face. But if she refuses to release non-privileged documents to the government, it will become clear that she is doing nothing more than attempting to thwart the criminal investigation of Trump.
The passage of the election has set off the Merrick Garland whingers again, people who like displaying their ignorance by claiming there has been no sign of progress on the investigations into Trump when (often as not) there were signs of progress that the whingers are ignoring in the last few days.
Yes. It has been almost a week since the close of polls last Tuesday. No. Merrick Garland has not carted Trump away in a paddy wagon yet (nor would the FBI, if and when they ever did arrest him).
Yes. We actually know why Garland hasn’t done so — and it’s not for want of actions that might lead there.
There are still known steps that have to or probably will happen before Trump would be indicted in any of the known criminal investigations into him. For those demanding proof of life from the DOJ investigations into Trump, you need look no further than the public record to find that proof of life. The public record easily explains both what DOJ has been doing in the Trump investigations, and why there is likely to be at least a several month delay before any charges can be brought.
The reason is that DOJ is still pursuing the evidence they would need before charging a former President.
Here’s an update on the various investigations into Trump (I’ve bolded the two appellate deadlines below).
The reason I’m particularly crabby about the Merrick Garland whinging is because people were accusing DOJ of inaction hours after DOJ’s most recent step in the investigation into Trump’s stolen documents. On November 3, for example, DOJ compelled Kash Patel to testify before a grand jury under grant of use immunity, testimony that would be necessary, one way or another, before charging Trump, because DOJ would need to rule out or at least account for any claim that Trump mass-declassified the documents he stole.
DOJ continues to fight to ensure it can keep the documents it seized on August 8, and to be permitted to use the unclassified documents it seized in the investigation. The most recent filings in that fight, as I wrote up here, were filings about the disputes Trump and DOJ have about the seized documents, which Special Master Raymond Dearie will use to rule on those designations by December 16. After Dearie does that, Trump will dispute some of Dearie’s decisions, and Judge Aileen Cannon will make her own decision de novo. She has not set her own deadline for how long that decision would take. But if the Special Master process is the means by which DOJ guarantees its access to the evidence against Trump, it won’t be resolved until after the New Year, even assuming DOJ won’t have to appeal some ridiculous Cannon ruling.
Short of doing a search on another Trump property, preferably in Virginia but possibly in New Jersey or New York, this case cannot be charged until DOJ can present documents the custody of which it has guaranteed to a grand jury. DOJ has to make sure they have the evidence they would use to charge Trump (though adjudicating these disputes now might make any prosecution quicker on the back end).
That said, DOJ may guarantee custody of the documents it seized in August more quickly, via its challenge to Cannon’s decision to appoint a Special Master in the first place, in the 11th Circuit. Trump’s response to that appeal, which he submitted on November 10, seemed desultory, as if Chris Kice knows they will lose this appeal (indeed, that seems likely given that both the 11th Circuit and SCOTUS have already declined to see the case in the way Trump would prefer). DOJ’s response is due on November 17. Because of the way the 11th Circuit has scheduled this appeal, the panel reviewing it will be prepared for oral argument on rather quick turnaround. Even so, DOJ is not likely to guarantee access to these documents via any favorable 11th Circuit decision (which Trump will undoubtedly appeal) before December 1, and it would take about a week to present any case to the grand jury. So the very earliest that DOJ could indict this case would be early- to mid- December.
Update: In a filing submitted on November 8 but only unsealed today, DOJ asked Raymond Dearie to recommend that Judge Cannon lift the injunction on the 2,794 out of 2,916 documents over which Trump is making no privilege claim.
Update: The 11th Circuit has set a hearing for November 22, so DOJ may actually have access to those files sooner than December 1, though not all that sooner.
January 6 investigation(s)
There are at least four ways that Trump might be charged in conjunction with January 6:
- For asking Mike Pence to illegally overturn legal votes and then threatening him, including with violence, when he refused
- For setting up fake electors to contest the election
- For fundraising off false claims of voter fraud and using the money to benefit those who helped the attack
- Via people like Roger Stone, in a networked conspiracy with those who attacked the Capitol
DOJ sent out subpoenas in the first three prongs of this just before the pre-election pause. This post summarizes who was included.
These are all (and have been) intersecting conspiracies (this CNN story describes how many areas the subpoenas cover). For example, since January, it has been clear that the top-down investigation most visible in the January 6 Committee work and the crime-scene investigation visible in ongoing prosecutions had converged on the pressure both Trump and the mob focused on Mike Pence. It’s unclear how DOJ will treat the intersection of these investigations, and whether DOJ will wait for all prongs to converge before charging.
The Mike Pence prong is where DOJ made its most obvious progress during the pre-election pause. On October 6, Mike Pence Counsel Greg Jacob testified before a grand jury. October 14, Pence’s Chief of Staff Marc Short testified. Also in October, DOJ asked Beryl Howell to compel Trump’s White House Counsels Pat Cipollone and Pat Philbin as well. I’m not aware of the status of appeals on that (or whether Judge Howell compelled testimony from the two Pats in the meantime). We know that all four men would describe the debates over the extent of Pence’s authority to reject lawful electors, including the recognition from people like John Eastman that their legal theories were unsupported by law. The two Pats would also testify about Trump’s reaction to the mob, as he watched the attack on the Capitol from inside the White House dining room, including the tweet that specifically targeted Pence. These are all very credible first-hand witnesses to Trump’s words and actions both in advance of and during the attack. Obtaining their testimony would be necessary before charging a former President. But DOJ’s efforts (and success) at obtaining their testimony reflects the seriousness of the investigation.
The publication of Pence’s book, which relays his version about exchanges with Trump, would seem to invite a demand from DOJ that he testify about the same topics to the grand jury as well, particularly given the way he spun the story in ways that might help Trump. If I were a prosecutor contemplating charging the former President, I would want that potentially exculpatory (to Trump) locked in under oath. And any claim from Pence that he can’t share these details because of Executive Privilege seem ridiculous in the face of a book tour. But if DOJ decided they needed Pence’s testimony it might result in delay.
It’s unclear how much progress DOJ has made on the subpoenas issued before the pause. None of those subpoenaed have been spotted at grand jury appearances at Prettyman (though that may change this week). In particular, there are a bunch of senior Republicans involved in the fake elector plots from whom I expect DOJ to try to lock in testimony.
But two things may cause delay in any case. First, as I wrote here, subpoenas (generally served on people who might be expected to comply) are easy, because they require the person who received the subpoena to do the search for the subpoenaed materials. But it takes time to exploit phones, all the more so if the phone was seized without some way to open it. Here’s how long the communications of various high profile people have taken to exploit:
This is not indolence. It is physics and due process: it just takes time to crack phones, to filter the content, and to scope what is responsive to a warrant.
Among the steps taken before the pause, in early September, DOJ seized the phones of Boris Epshteyn and Mike Roman. While it’s possible DOJ will be able to accelerate the process of exploiting these phones (they have done so with Oath Keeper lawyer Kellye SoRelle’s phone, as last week DOJ submitted material that had gone through a filter review from the phone seized from her in early September in the sedition case), you should not assume they can fully exploit these phones (with whatever Signal content is on them) in less than six months, so March. In Epshteyn’s case, his claims to be playing a legal role in the stolen document case may cause further delays because of a filter review.
As someone involved in vote fraud efforts, Latinos for Trump, and the Oath Keepers, SoRelle is one of the pivots from the White House and Willard focused activities to the crime scene. DOJ seems closer to moving against others at that pivot point. Roger Stone, for example, has been mentioned over and over in the Oath Keeper trial. But that’s probably several months off. Alex Jones sidekick Owen Shroyer has been given until the end of the month to decide whether he wants to plead or take his chances on further charges. And I expect DOJ will wait until the verdict at least in the Oath Keeper case (they might not even get through all the defense witnesses this week), and possibly in the more complex Proud Boy case (which would be February barring likely unforeseen changes), before going too much further.
There’s one more thing that may delay any more spectacular charges in January 6. The oral argument for DOJ’s appeal of Carl Nichols’ outlier decision on the application of 18 USC 1512(c)(2) to the insurrection won’t happen until December 12. It drew a pretty unfavorable panel for that hearing (listed as Joseph Fischer here): Trump appointees Greg Katsas (like Nichols, a former Clarence Thomas clerk, who also worked as Deputy White House Counsel in 2017) and Justin Walker (who is close to Mitch McConnell), and Biden appointee Florence Pan (who presided over January 6 cases before being promoted to the Circuit Court). It’s possible, but by no means certain, that the Trump appointees will do something nutty, in which case, DOJ would surely appeal first to the full DC Circuit panel; if they overturn Nichols, Garret Miller and the other January 6 defendants who got their obstruction charges thrown out will presumably appeal to SCOTUS.
Nichols’ decision, which ruled that January 6 did count as an official proceeding but ruled that any obstruction had to involve some kind of documents, probably wouldn’t stall any charges relating to the fake electors, which were after all about using fraudulent documents to overturn the vote certification. But it might lead DOJ to pause for other charges until the legal application is unquestioned. 18 USC 1512 is the charge on which DOJ has built its set of interlocking conspiracy charges, and so this decision is pretty important going forward.
Unlike the stolen document case, I can’t give you a date that would be the soonest possible date to expect indictments. But for a variety of reasons laid out here, unless DOJ were to indict on charges specifically focused on Mike Pence (with the possibility of superseding later), it probably would not be until March or April at the earliest.
The Georgia investigation, like the Federal one, was paused for a period leading up to the election (it’s unclear whether the run-off between Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker will further delay things). But during the pre-election period, DA Fani Willis won decisions for testimony from Lindsey Graham and Newt Gingrich. Those grand jury appearances were scheduled for the end of this month (though may be pushed back). In any case, Willis has indicated that any charges from this investigation may come before the end of the year.
To be clear, none of this is a guarantee that DOJ (or Willis) will indict Trump and/or his closest aides. It is, however, a summary of the reasons that are public that all these investigations have been taking steps that would have to happen before they could charge Trump, and that most have additional steps that would have to happen before prosecutors could even make a prosecutorial decision.