Judge Aileen Cannon Deems Grand Jury Subpoenas Toilet Paper

In Judge Aileen Cannon’s order blowing off national security in favor of Donald Trump’s claims of being a victim, she never once names the crimes under investigation.

Not the Espionage Act, 18 USC 793.

Not removing government documents, 18 USC 2071.

And definitely not obstruction, 18 USC 1519.

Her silence about the crimes for which a magistrate judge found probable cause is critical to the scheme behind her order.

That’s because — in a breathtaking paragraph — she suggests that the classification marks on the documents Trump stole are up for debate.

The Motion primarily seeks a stay of the September 5 Order insofar as it temporarily enjoins, in conjunction with the Special Master’s review of the seized materials, approximately 100 documents “marked as classified (and papers physically attached to them)” [ECF No. 69 p. 2 n.1]. In isolating the described documents from the larger set of seized materials, the Motion effectively asks the Court to accept the following compound premises, neither of which the Court is prepared to adopt hastily without further review by a Special Master. The first premise underlying the Motion is that all of the approximately 100 documents isolated by the Government (and “papers physically attached to them”) are classified government records, and that Plaintiff therefore could not possibly have a possessory interest in any of them. The second is that Plaintiff has no plausible claim of privilege as to any of these documents [ECF No. 69 p. 7 (categorically asserting that the “classified records at issue in this Motion . . . do not include personal records or potentially privileged communications”)]. The Court does not find it appropriate to accept the Government’s conclusions on these important and disputed issues without further review by a neutral third party in an expedited and orderly fashion. [my emphasis]

Had she discussed the Espionage Act, she might consider that it doesn’t matter whether Trump claims to have declassified the documents. What matters is if they are National Defense Information.

Cannon’s silence about obstruction is even more outlandish. No one contests that these documents are marked classified! Trump has not even formally contested they’re classified. But the entire question is what to do about documents marked classified.

If the are marked as classified — which no one contests! — then they were responsive to the May 11 subpoena. And if Trump withheld documents responsive to the May 11 subpoena, he committed the crime of obstruction.

And that’s why Aileen Cannon doesn’t want to talk about the crimes under investigation here. Because once you do, then there’s no question but those documents marked as classified are either evidence of the crime, Espionage Act, or the crime, obstruction — and probably both.

Go to emptywheel resource page on Trump Espionage Investigation.

Aileen Cannon Orders Government to Share Classified Information with Trump’s Counsel

I’ll have a lot more to say about Judge Aileen Cannon’s order blowing off National Security in favor of Trump’s half-assed claims of being a victim. Her order is a radical assault on national security and rule of law.

But for the moment, I want to look at this part of her work flow order.

Make available for inspection by Plaintiff’s counsel, with controlled access conditions (including necessary clearance requirements) and under the supervision of the Special Master, the documents marked as classified and the papers attached to such documents; and

It orders the government to make the classified documents stolen by Trump available to his attorneys, including Evan Corcoran, who is either a witness or a subject of this investigation. None are known to be cleared. Aside from Jim Trusty, it’s not clear how quickly any of them can be cleared.

In her order, she claims this involves sharing only with the Special Master, Raymond Dearie.

The Government also presents the argument, in passing, that making the full scope of the seized materials available to the Special Master would itself create irreparable harm [ECF No. 69 p. 18]. Insofar as the Government argues that disclosure to a Special Master of documents marked as classified necessarily creates an irreparable injury because the special master process in this case is unnecessary, the Court disagrees for the reasons previously stated. Separately, to the extent the Government appears to suggest that it would suffer independent irreparable harm from review of the documents by the Court’s designee with appropriate clearances and controlled access, that argument is meritless

But these are completely contradictory. One document says the government must share classified information with Trump’s people. The other document says, “it’s only Raymond Dearie, don’t worry your little heads.”

And she just waves her hands and says the government must share this stuff, “including necessary clearance requirements,” without acknowledging that she doesn’t get to decide that. If the government says that none of Trump’s lawyers can be cleared, they get to say that (again, I expect fewer concerns about Trusty, but major concerns about Corcoran).

That’s par for the course of this order.

Go to emptywheel resource page on Trump Espionage Investigation.

“A Coat Rack with Suit Jackets, as Well as Interior Décor Items Such as Wall Art and Frames”

As expected, MJ Bruce Reinhart has released a less redacted version of the Trump search warrant affidavit.

The newly unsealed information pertains to the two grand jury subpoenas — the May 11 and the June 24 one. The description of the second one confirms what I’ve been noting: that the video surveillance subpoena was dated June 24, not June 22 as Trump’s people have been saying.

It requested video going back to January 10. Trump’s camp had said they only turned over two months of video (which may be true — they may simply not archive more than two months of video). But DOJ attempted to get video from before Trump packed up the first set of boxes returned to NARA, suggesting they’ve known all along how he was sorting this.

Trump provided DOJ with the video on July 6, just about the date I guessed they would have gotten it. That means DOJ only took a month to write the affidavit to search Trump’s home.

There’s a slightly different description of the classifications of the documents that Evan Corcoran turned over. It reveals that at least one of those documents was marked FISA, as was true of the first batch.

The newly unsealed passages also reveal that along with all his stolen documents, Trump had, “a coat rack with suit jackets, as well as interior decor items such as wall art and frames.”

Finally, it appears that Jay Bratt or the FBI specifically asked Corcoran if he knew of documents stored “in any private office space.” He said no.

Update: Here’s the government reply on their motion for a stay. My favorite sentence is where DOJ has to point out to Judge Cannon that she can’t invoke Executive Privilege for Trump, nor can a Special Master.

In any event, it is Plaintiff—not the Court and not a special master—who would need to make an assertion of executive privilege and supply reasons supporting that assertion. He has provided none.

And then they spend a whole paragraph describing how, if Trump is really trying to assert ownership over classified documents via a claim he both declassified and designated them privileged, then he can’t withhold via an Executive Privilege claim from an investigation into 18 USC 793.

Plaintiff’s suggestion that he “may have categorized certain of the seized materials as personal [records] during his presidency” pursuant to the PRA, D.E. 84 at 15, if true, would only supply another reason that he cannot assert executive privilege with regard to those records. If Plaintiff truly means to suggest that, while President, he chose to categorize records with markings such as “SECRET” and “TOP SECRET” as his personal records for purposes of the PRA, then he cannot assert that the very same records are protected by executive privilege—i.e., that they are “Presidential communications” made in furtherance of the “performance of his official duties.” Nixon v. GSA, 433 U.S. at 447, 456; see 44 U.S.C. § 2201(3) (defining “personal records” as records “of a purely private or nonpublic character which do not relate to or have an effect upon the carrying out of the constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the President”). In any event, whether Plaintiff declared documents with classification markings to be his “personal” records for purposes of the PRA has no bearing on the government’s compelling need to review them, both for national security purposes and as part of its investigation into the potentially unlawful retention of national defense information.


Carolyn Maloney Provides NARA Cause to Assert Standing

Carolyn Maloney, fresh off losing her primary, sent a letter to Acting Archivist Debra Steidel Wall as part of a pre-existing inquiry into Trump’s stolen documents.

Noting that, “NARA’s staff recently informed the Committee that the agency is not certain whether all presidential records are in its custody,” she asked for two things from Steidel Wall: To ask Trump to issue a declaration stating that he has returned everything and to provide the Oversight Committee a review of whether the government has gotten everything back.

I urge NARA to seek a personal certification from Donald Trump that he has surrendered all presidential records that he illegally removed from the White House after leaving office. I also ask that the agency conduct an urgent review of presidential records recovered from the Trump White House to assess whether presidential records remain unaccounted for and potentially in the possession of the former president.


[T]he Committee requests that NARA conduct an urgent review of presidential records from the Trump Administration to identify any presidential records or categories of presidential records, whether textual or electronic, that NARA has reason to believe may still be outside of the agency’s custody and control. Please also assess any other limitations on the completeness, accuracy, and accessibility of presidential records provided to NARA by the Trump Administration. Please provide the Committee an initial assessment of NARA’s findings from this review by September 27, 2022.

In addition, I urge NARA to seek from former President Trump a written certification that he has surrendered all presidential records or classified materials, has not made any copies or reproductions of such materials, and has not transferred any records or government documents to any party other than NARA or DOJ since his term ended.22 Although the President is not required under current law to provide such a certification, I believe that the exceptional circumstances in this case warrant that Mr. Trump do the same so Congress and the American people can fully understand the impact of his actions on our nation’s security, take mitigating action, and consider legislative reforms. [my emphasis]

Steidel Wall will never get Trump to issue such a declaration. But it will highlight the important question — particularly given the caveat that Christina Bobb added into her own declaration — about whether Trump shared or disseminated these records.

The rumors that he did are so abundant I’m hearing them an ocean away.

Maloney might have more success with her request for a report on whether NARA got everything back. There’s just one problem.

NARA doesn’t have the documents. The FBI does. But the FBI isn’t allowed to do anything with them, under Judge Aileen Cannon’s injunction.

This request from Maloney gives Steidel Wall cause to intervene and to do so on fairly urgent timeline. She has a legitimate request from Congress, after all!

Mind you, the place where Steidel Wall would be required to intervene is in DC, not in Florida.

Which may be the entire point of Maloney’s letter.

Go to emptywheel resource page on Trump Espionage Investigation.

Donald Trump Agrees He Is Living By Barack Obama’s Rules

I’ve been waiting for something like this: the moment where Donald Trump concedes that Barack Obama — Hawaiian birth certificate and all — will play a key role in decisions about his ridiculous claims about hoarding classified documents.

Midway through Trump’s bid to convince Aileen Cannon to reject DOJ’s motion for a stay of her injunction against using the documents marked with classification marks seized from Trump’s beach resort, he notes that the only power he ever had to classify and declassify documents was governed by an Executive Order signed by Barack Obama on December 29, 2009.

The Government does not contest—indeed, it concedes—that the President has broad authority governing classification of, and access to, classified documents. [ECF No. 69 at 10, 18 (quoting Dep’t of Navy v. Egan, 484 U.S. 518, 529 (1988))]. In fact, the Government advocates that “the protection of classified information must be committed to the broad discretion of the agency responsible, and this must include broad discretion to determine who may have access to it.” [ECF No. 69 at 18 (quoting Egan, 484 U.S. at 529)]. Congress provided certain parameters for controlling classified information but primarily delegated to the President how to regulate classified information. 50 U.S.C. § 3161. At the same time, Congress exempted the President from complying with such requirements. See id. § 3163 (“Except as otherwise specifically provided, the provisions of this subchapter shall not apply to the President . . .”).

President Obama enacted the current Executive Order prescribing the parameters for controlling classified information in 2009. See Exec. Order 13526 (Dec. 29, 2009). That Executive Order, which controlled during President Trump’s term in office, designates the President as an original classification authority. See id. § 1.3(a)(1). In turn, the Executive Order grants authority to declassify information to either the official who originally classified the information or that individual’s supervisors—necessarily including the President. § 3.1(b)(1), (3). Thus, assuming the Executive Order could even apply to constrain a President, cf. 50 U.S.C. § 3163, the President enjoys absolute authority under the Executive Order to declassify any information. There is no legitimate contention that the Chief Executive’s declassification of documents requires approval of bureaucratic components of the executive branch. Yet, the Government apparently contends that President Trump, who had full authority to declassify documents, “willfully” retained classified information in violation of the law. See 18 U.S.C. § 793(e); [ECF No. 69 at 9].7 Moreover, the Government seeks to preclude any opportunity for consideration of this issue.

7 Of course, classified or declassified, the documents remain either Presidential records or personal records under the PRA. [ed: See this post for how Trump debunked this claim. My emphasis]

Donald Trump concedes that Executive Order 13526 governed the classification and declassification of information on December 29, 2009. It continued to govern the classification and declassification of information on January 20, 2017. It continued to govern the classification and declassification of information on January 20, 2021. It continues to govern the classification and declassification of information today.

Donald Trump agrees that he never altered this EO. He agrees that he is bound by it still, unless the lawful President, a guy named Joe Biden, decides to change it.

This is a virtual capitulation to the arguments DOJ is making, including that the classification review of the documents he stole, the review ongoing as we speak, will be determinative of the classification status of those documents.

But it’s also a concession that he is bound by everything in the EO. There’s a whole bunch of things Trump concedes when he concedes that point (including that classified information must be kept secure).

One of those things, however, is that former Presidents — and the propagandists who work for them — still must get waivers to bypass Need to Know restrictions on classified information.

Sec. 4.4. Access by Historical Researchers and Certain Former Government Personnel.

(a) The requirement in section 4.1(a)(3) of this order that access to classified information may be granted only to individuals who have a need to-know the information may be waived for persons who:

(1) are engaged in historical research projects;

(2) previously have occupied senior policy-making positions to which they were appointed or designated by the President or the Vice President; or

(3) served as President or Vice President.

(b) Waivers under this section may be granted only if the agency head or senior agency official of the originating agency:

(1) determines in writing that access is consistent with the interest of the national security;

(2) takes appropriate steps to protect classified information from unauthorized disclosure or compromise, and ensures that the information is safeguarded in a manner consistent with this order; and

(3) limits the access granted to former Presidential appointees or designees and Vice Presidential appointees or designees to items that the person originated, reviewed, signed, or received while serving as a Presidential or Vice Presidential appointee or designee. [my emphasis]

This part of the EO — an EO that Trump, who served but no longer serves as President, agreed he is bound by — does not say that such access must be waived. It says it may be.

May. Not must.

Moreover, this waiver requires that before waiving the Need to Know rule, agency heads first determine, in writing, that giving former Presidents and their propagandists access to classified information, “is consistent with the interest of national security.”

Right there, in the middle of his filing arguing that maybe the classification decisions Joe Biden’s Administration is making right now can be overridden by a Special Master, Donald Trump agrees that the Barack Obama order he says he is bound by means not even he gets access to this information without a waiver, and even then, only if the agency heads that own the information say it won’t make the country less safe.

In his bid to claw back classified information he stole, Donald Trump admits he’s still living by Barack Obama’s rules. And those rules, the rules Trump admits he is bound by, say he can only even access this information if Avril Haines and Paul Nakasone and William Burns and Chris Wray say he can.

Go to emptywheel resource page on Trump Espionage Investigation.

[Photo: National Security Agency, Ft. Meade, MD via Wikimedia]

The Full-Fitton: Trump’s Funny Math with the Federal Records Act

As I laid out here, you really don’t need to get further than the second paragraph of Trump’s response to DOJ’s bid for a stay on Judge Aileen Cannon’s injunction against using seized evidence of obstruction and Espionage Act violations to find evidence of a crime. In that paragraph, Trump confesses that the FBI did seize documents marked as classified — and therefore documents responsive to a May 11 subpoena — from Mar-a-Lago on August 8; that’s tantamount to a confession to obstruction.

I want to look at another funny thing he does, before I move to the subject of his gaslighting (whether these documents are genuinely classified or not, which is irrelevant to the crimes under investigation).

Trump is trying to stall the Espionage and obstruction investigation into him. But he’s also attempting to either claw back documents into his own possession, or to bottle them up at the Archives under separate legal challenges. As such, he’s adopting Tom Fitton’s argument — based on a very different set of Bill Clinton records that weren’t seized from his home via a lawful warrant but were instead FOIAed — that he designated many of these documents as personal records while still President, so they don’t even have to be in the Archives.

Critical to that argument is that documents are either Presidential Records or personal records, and the latter don’t have to be in the Archives, and so (he makes several huge logical jumps) they can’t be used in a criminal prosecution against him.

The PRA further distinguishes records as either Presidential or personal. 44 U.S.C. § 2201. Presidential records are defined as: documentary materials, or any reasonably segregable portion thereof, created or received by the President, the President’s immediate staff, or a unit or individual of the Executive Office of the President whose function is to advise or assist the President, in the course of conducting activities which relate to or have an effect upon the carrying out of the constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the President. 44 U.S.C. § 2201(2).

The PRA expressly excludes personal records from the definition of Presidential records. See id. § 2201(2)(B). Personal records are defined as “documentary materials, or any reasonably segregable portion therof, [sic] of a purely private or nonpublic character which do not relate to or have an effect upon the carrying out of the constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the President.” Id. § 2201(3). The PRA thus “distinguishes Presidential records from ‘personal records’” and “requires that all materials produced or received by the President, ‘to the extent practicable, be categorized as Presidential records or personal records upon their creation or receipt and be filed separately.’” Jud. Watch, Inc. v. Nat’l Archives & Recs. Admin., 845 F. Supp. 2d 288, 291 (D.D.C. 2012) (quoting 44 U.S.C. § § 2203(b)). “The categorization of the records during the Presidency controls what happens next . . . . The statute assigns the Archivist no role with respect to personal records once the Presidency concludes.” Id. (emphasis added). “The PRA contains no provision obligating or even permitting the Archivist to assume control over records that the President ‘categorized’ and ‘filed separately’ as personal records. At the conclusion of the President’s term, the Archivist only ‘assumes responsibility for the Presidential records.” Id. (quoting 44 U.S.C. § 2203(f)(1)). “[T]he PRA does not confer any mandatory or even discretionary authority on the Archivist to classify records. Under the statute, this responsibility is left solely to the President.” Id. at 301 (describing categorization decision by former President Clinton as not within the discretion of the Archivist as the subject materials “were not provided to the Archives at” the end of the Clinton presidency).

Critically, the former President has sole discretion to classify a record as personal or Presidential. See Jud. Watch, Inc., 845 F. Supp. 2d at 301 (“Under the statute, this responsibility is left solely to the President.”). The power of the Archivist is not greater than that of the President. Specifically, the PRA states “the Archivist of the United States shall assume responsibility for the custody, control, and preservation of, and access to, the Presidential records of that President.” 44 U.S.C. § 2203(f)(1). This section should not be interpreted as weakening a President’s authority under the Act. See Jud. Watch, Inc., 845 F. Supp. 2d at 300 (“[T]he plain language of section 2203(f) of the PRA does not say . . . that the Archivist must assume custody and control of all materials that fall within the definition of Presidential records.”).

Accordingly, all of the records at issue in the Government’s motion fall into two categories: (1) Presidential records, governed exclusively by the Presidential Records Act; and (2) personal records, the determination of which was in President Trump’s discretion. See id. To the extent President Trump may have categorized certain of the seized materials as personal during his presidency, any disagreement as to that categorization is to be resolved under the PRA and cannot possibly form the basis for any criminal prosecution. [my emphasis]

He’s not wrong about the Presidential Records Act reserving personal records. The category of personal records might even exempt documents pertaining to his coup attempt from storage at the Archives (though if Trump had made that designation, then he could not exempt them from subpoena under a claim of Executive Privilege, nor could he later claim those records memorialized his official acts).

(3) The term “personal records” means all documentary materials, or any reasonably segregable portion therof,2 of a purely private or nonpublic character which do not relate to or have an effect upon the carrying out of the constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the President. Such term includes—

(A) diaries, journals, or other personal notes serving as the functional equivalent of a diary or journal which are not prepared or utilized for, or circulated or communicated in the course of, transacting Government business;

(B) materials relating to private political associations, and having no relation to or direct effect upon the carrying out of constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the President; and

(C) materials relating exclusively to the President’s own election to the office of the Presidency; and materials directly relating to the election of a particular individual or individuals to Federal, State, or local office, which have no relation to or direct effect upon the carrying out of constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the President.

If these documents hadn’t been seized via a lawful warrant authorizing the seizure of everything stored with documents bearing classification marks, the government might have a tough fight to get them.

This is also the reason why Trump wants the Archivist excluded from any Special Master proceeding — so Trump can persuade someone, in secret, that he actually designated such records personal and such a claim would stand up under the PRA, without leaving a record for such time as FBI subpoenaed the very same documents as personal documents.

But Trump chose to hoard classified records and as a result, the FBI was forced to get a warrant and seize records more broadly.

Still, as far as it goes, the Fitton argument is that everything is either a Presidential Record or a personal record, and the latter don’t belong in the Archives, and that should trump (heh) their seizure with a lawful warrant that authorized the seizure of everything stored with or in the same place as documents marked as classified.

Except in the paragraph immediately before the Fitton argument, Trump concedes that’s not right. Before you split things into Presidential and personal records, you need to split them into Presidential and Federal Records.

All government records (classified or otherwise) fall into two basic categories, either under the PRA or the Federal Records Act (“FRA”). “The FRA defines a class of materials that are federal records subject to its provisions, and the PRA describes another, mutually exclusive set of materials that are subject to a different, less rigorous regime. In other words, no individual record can be subject to both statutes because their provisions are inconsistent.” Armstrong v. Exec. Office of the President, 1 F. 3d 1274, 1293 (D.C. Cir. 1993).

That is, he admits his two-category sorting is false.

And then he just drops the FRA, never to mention it again.

Even setting aside the example of Mike Ellis — who on January 8, 2021, was discovered to have brought a compartmented NSA document to the White House and, at first, “refused to return the document, retained it for the White House archives, and, based on what the NSA employee saw, placed the document in a container that did not meet the security storage requirements for such a sensitive program” — there would be a number of other documents, classified and not, that were brought to the White House but which remained agency records. Another category of agency documents, for example, are those pertaining to the Russian investigation, which should never have been at the White House in the first place, but which Trump wants to own for all time by simultaneously claiming he declassified and then made personal records of them.

None of those records would fit into Trump’s neat binary.

So he just ignores that and goes full-Fitton and hopes Aileen Cannon will ignore that bit.

Go to emptywheel resource page on Trump Espionage Investigation.

In Bid to Keep Executive from Accessing Executive Branch Documents, Trump Confesses to Obstruction

In his 21-page response to Judge Aileen Cannon informing her they want her to reject the government’s request for a stay of her injunction prohibiting the government taking investigative steps using 103 documents marked classified, Trump confesses to obstruction of justice.

Trump admits, over and over, that when the FBI showed up with a warrant authorizing the seizure (in part) of any documents with classification markings, it found such documents on the premises.

[I]t appears such “classified records,” along with the other seized materials, were principally located in storage boxes in a locked room at Mar-a-Lago, a secure, controlled access compound utilized regularly to conduct the official business of the United States during the Trump Presidency, which to this day is monitored by the United States Secret Service.

Mind you, there’s a lie here, as there is in the passage where Trump describes “complying with a subpoena” as “voluntary” production.

Likewise, there was no similar sense of urgency or imminent threat associated with the “classified records” President Trump’s counsel voluntarily turned over on June 3, 2022.

The lie is that these documents weren’t all stored in storage boxes in a room that didn’t comply with the rules set by the Executive Order that still governs classified records. The most sensitive documents — along with most of the empty classification cover folders — were in Trump’s office, an office in which he routinely entertained people (including foreign citizens) not cleared to view classified records.

But even when Trump introduces the crux of his argument that the Presidential Records Act would guarantee him access to documents that are actually found to be Presidential (as opposed to Federal) Records, he doesn’t contest that the government seized documents marked as classified at his property.

Moreover, the ultimate disposition of all the “classified records,” and likely most of the seized materials, is indisputably governed exclusively by the provisions of the Presidential Records Act (“PRA”). See 44 U.S.C. §§ 2201, et seq. The PRA accords any President extraordinary discretion to categorize all his or her records as either Presidential or personal records, and established case law provides for very limited judicial oversight over such categorization. The PRA further contains no provision authorizing or allowing for any criminal enforcement. Rather, disputes regarding the disposition of any Presidential record are to be resolved between such President and the National Archives and Records Administration (“NARA”). Thus, at best, the Government might ultimately be able to establish certain Presidential records should be returned to NARA. What is clear regarding all of the seized materials is that they belong with either President Trump (as his personal property to be returned pursuant to Rule 41(g)) or with NARA, but not with the Department of Justice.

The likely reason why Trump lies about Evan Corcoran responding to a subpoena is because absent that lie, Trump would have to explain to Judge Cannon that every single one of those 103 documents with classification marks was proof that Trump had refused to comply with a subpoena and — via his lawyers, including one who signed this filing — lied to do so.

Nevertheless, the entire 21-page argument about classification (which also concedes that neither he nor Judge Cannon has any authority to review these documents for classification status) is not just gaslighting, but also a serial confession that, Yes, Donald Trump obstructed this investigation.

And that confession is — irrespective of the actual classification status of those documents — an admission that because each of those 103 documents is evidence that Trump obstructed an investigation, they belong in the hands of the FBI to continue their investigation of why Trump obstructed their investigation.

Go to emptywheel resource page on Trump Espionage Investigation.

18 USC 793(g): Aileen Cannon’s Order Would Not Forestall Flipping Trump’s Custodian of Records

Donald Trump’s lawyers (including the one who failed to understand Trump was exposed to 18 USC 793 and who subsequently made himself a witness in the investigation) are cultivating the belief that they’ve succeeded in stalling the investigation into their client’s efforts to keep highly classified documents in his office and storage closet.

Perhaps they have. I don’t know what will happen. Though I know their track record of predicting what DOJ will do, thus far, has been piss-poor.

What I do know is that nothing would prevent DOJ from interviewing — or even flipping — the Custodian of Records who used to be one of Trump’s lawyers in this matter.

DOJ’s motion for a stay explicitly states that Judge Aileen Cannon’s injunction against using the classified documents seized from Donald Trump for investigative purposes would not shut down the investigation. It lays out several things her injunction would not prohibit.

To be sure, the Court did not enjoin the criminal investigation altogether. For example, the government does not understand the Court’s injunction against the government’s review and use of seized materials for criminal investigative purposes to prevent it from questioning witnesses and obtaining evidence about issues such as how classified records in general were moved from the White House, how they were subsequently stored, and what steps Plaintiff and his representatives took in response to the May 11, 2022 grand jury subpoena. The government also does not understand the Order to bar it from asking witnesses about any recollections they may have of classified records, so long as the government does not use the content of seized classified records to question witnesses (which the Order appears to prohibit).

DOJ maintains that Cannon’s order does not prevent them from questioning witnesses or otherwise obtaining evidence about:

  • How classified records were moved from the White House to Trump properties
  • How classified records were stored after they were removed from the White House
  • What steps Trump and others took in response to the May 11, 2022 grand jury subpoena
  • Recollections about classified records not relying on those seized on August 8

One person who would know a good deal about these matters, and might have an interest in being rather forthcoming about them if she were interested in minimizing her potential legal exposure, is Trump’s Custodian of Records.

By title, at least, that person would know how classified documents were stored — in Mar-a-Lago and any other Trump properties — after they were removed from the White House. And few people would know more about what steps Trump “and his representatives took in response to the May 11, 2022 grand jury subpoena” than one of those two representatives, the one who signed a declaration certifying that:

Based upon the information that has been provided to me, I am authorized to certify, on behalf of the Office of Donald J. Trump, the following:

a. A diligent search was conducted of the boxes that were moved from the White House to Florida;

b. This search was conducted after receipt of the subpoena, in order to locate any and all documents that are responsive to the subpoena;

c. Any and all responsive documents accompany this certification; and

d. No copy, written notation, or reproduction of any kind was retained as to any responsive document.

I swear or affirm that the above statements are true and correct to the best of my knowledge.

In fact, that Custodian of Records might have real concern she faced legal exposure for one or more crime tied to lying to the FBI:

And all that’s assuming the Custodian of Records isn’t one of the people who shows up on video surveillance moving boxes in and out of the storage room before the “diligent search was conducted” of those boxes.

If the Custodian of Records does show up on that video surveillance, than she might face legal exposure to:

If the Custodian of Records conspired to withhold 103 classified documents, of which 18 were classified Top Secret or above, that Custodian of Records might decide she really wanted to limit her liability in that potentially draconian obstruction-plus-Espionage legal exposure.

All the more so if the Custodian of Records believed she might also have exposure to charges under 18 USC 1512(c)(2) and 18 USC 1512(k) — each of which carries up to a twenty year sentence — for involvement in an attempt to prevent the January 6 2021 vote certification and recognized that information about such activities was of value to other ongoing criminal investigations.

NYT, in an otherwise bizarre story claiming the following in its lead paragraph…

A dark joke has begun circulating among lawyers following the many legal travails of former President Donald J. Trump: MAGA actually stands for “making attorneys get attorneys.”

… revealed this piece of news:

Ms. [Christina] Bobb recently retained a lawyer, according to a person familiar with the situation.

Being Trump’s lawyer — being Trump’s associate generally — seems to be a non-stop game of prisoner’s dilemma, a constant weighing of whether he’ll sell you out or provide means to loot the country with impunity.

Years ago, when Trump was President, that prisoner’s dilemma turned out to be pretty easy. He would pardon anyone who lied to keep him out of trouble. So no matter how grave your legal exposure, your real criminal exposure was just a few years (and that’s before Billy Barr started selectively freeing Trump associates under COVID release programs).

But Trump is not President anymore, and short of successful civil war, even in the rosiest possible scenario would not become President again until 2025. In fact, Trump’s own legal problems and his success shutting down women’s access to abortion even makes more immediate potential relief — in the form of a House majority that could undermine DOJ’s ongoing investigations — far less of a sure thing.

Trump’s success at stalling access to classified documents seized on August 8 — and his current lawyers’ rosy prediction they’ve delayed such access until Republicans might win one house of Congress — certainly would be part of that prisoner’s dilemma. After all, until such time as DOJ were able to use 18 Top Secret documents in an Espionage Act indictment, the Custodian of Records probably couldn’t be charged for 18 USC 793(g).

But as I’ve noted before, the Espionage Act was written to dramatically alter these kinds of prisoner’s dilemmas, both because affirmative knowledge of stolen classified documents is enough to reach criminal exposure, and because the conspiracy prong of the statute exposes co-conspirators — even ones who don’t share the same motive as the person who actually possesses a cache of stolen classified documents — to the same stiff punishment as the people who actually possess those documents.

So a smart student of prisoner’s dilemmas might understand that it doesn’t pay to wait to see how Trump’s current efforts at delay work out.

One thing’s clear though: DOJ doesn’t intend to entirely halt the investigation into violations of the Espionage Act and obstruction. Indeed, they have a fair amount of leeway to pursue obstruction charges while Aileen Cannon delays the other part of the investigation. And they have described next steps to include obtaining information uniquely available to Trump’s Custodian of Records.

Go here for emptywheel’s other coverage of Trump’s stolen documents and related resources. 

DOJ Has at Least One Card Left to Play: Congress’ Instinct for Self-Preservation

Last night, Trump and DOJ submitted their competing plans for a Special Master to Judge Aileen Cannon. As I laid out, Trump’s plan is a transparent effort to stall the entire investigation for at least three months, and after that to bottle up documents he stole — those with classified markings and those without — at NARA, where he’ll launch new legal fights in DC to prevent further access.

Judge Cannon has ordered Trump to weigh in on the government’s motion for a partial stay of her order, asking her to permit the investigative team access to any documents marked as classified, by 10AM on Monday. Trump will object for the same insane logic he gave in his Special Master proposal: That if he can get a private citizen Special Master to override the government’s classification determination, then he can declare the documents — even Agency documents that would be government, not Presidential Records — part of his own records at NARA.

Because Trump didn’t share his choices until after close of business day on Friday, both sides also have to inform her what they think of the other’s Special Master suggestions — Barbara Jones (who was Special Master for the review of both Rudy Giuliani’s and Michael Cohen’s devices) and retired George W. Bush appellate judge Thomas Griffith for the government, and retired EDNY and FISC judge Raymond Dearie and GOP partisan lawyer Paul Huck Jr for Trump — on Monday.

Then, if Cannon has not relented on the investigative side for documents marked as classified by Thursday, DOJ will ask for a stay of that part of her decision from the 11th Circuit, pending the rest of their appeal (the scope of which remains unknown and may depend on her other decisions this week).

Cannon’s decision on whether to permit investigators to access the documents marked as classified may provide the government leverage over the Special Master choice, which could create new bases for appeal. None of the choices for Special Master are known to be cleared, much less at the TS/SCI levels that would be needed to review the documents Trump stole, though Dearie, who was on FISC as recently as 2019, surely would be easily cleared as such.

That doesn’t matter for the government’s preferred approach. The Special Master won’t get any known classified document under their approach.

They would, however, under Trump’s approach (which more closely matches Cannon’s current order). And so DOJ will have to agree to give clearance to whatever person ends up as Special Master under the Trump plan.

The same Supreme Court precedent that undergirds all these arguments about classification authority, Navy v. Egan, is specifically a ruling about the Executive’s authority to grant or deny clearances. The government could deny any of the proposed Special Masters clearance — and might well do so, to deny Huck access. Likewise, the government might well deny Trump’s lawyers (at least Evan Corcoran, who is likely either a witness or subject of the obstruction side of the investigation) clearance for such a review as well.

So if Cannon doesn’t grant the government’s motion for a stay, then she effectively gives the government several more levers over her control of the Special Master process.

She probably doesn’t give a damn.

There are two other developments we might expect this week, though.

First, last Wednesday, DOJ asked and Chief Judge Beryl Howell granted permission to unseal the parts of the search warrant affidavit mentioning the same two grand jury subpoenas that she unsealed for mention in DOJ’s response to Trump’s Special Master motion. (I’m looking for the person I owe a hat-tip to this for.) Since receiving that permission, DOJ has not yet gone back to Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart to request further unsealing of the affidavit; there’s not even the tell-tale sealed filings in the docket that ended up being prior such requests.

If and when DOJ does ask for further unsealing, it might reveal more information about Trump’s actions — and, importantly for the question of who can be cleared for the Special Master review, Evan Corcoran’s. There are several entirely redacted paragraphs that likely tell what happened in response to the May 11 subpoena. There’s also a likely detailed discussion of the probable cause that Trump — and others — obstructed the investigation, some of which could be unsealed with mention of the surveillance video.

The government response before Cannon didn’t address the evidence of obstruction (or the June 24 subpoena) in much detail. Simply unsealing references of that subpoena in the affidavit might provide more damning information about Trump’s efforts to hide classified documents from DOJ.

More importantly, on Tuesday, the House returns from August recess. It’ll be the first time since the search that both houses of Congress are in town. And in their Motion for a Stay, the government noted (and Judge Cannon did not object) that it did not understand Cannon’s order to prohibit a briefing to “Congressional leaders with intelligence oversight responsibilities.”

5 The government also does not understand the Court’s Order to bar DOJ, FBI, and ODNI from briefing Congressional leaders with intelligence oversight responsibilities regarding the classified records that were recovered. The government similarly does not understand the Order to restrict senior DOJ and FBI officials, who have supervisory responsibilities regarding the criminal investigation, from reviewing those records in preparation for such a briefing.

This seems to telegraph that DOJ plans to brief the Gang of Eight — which includes Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, Kevin McCarthy, Mike Turner, Chuck Schumer, Mark Warner, Mitch McConnell, and Marco Rubio — about what documents Trump stole, possibly this week. Turner and to a lesser degree Rubio have been demanding such a briefing.

And at a minimum, after such a briefing you’d see everyone run to the press and express their opinions about the gravity of Trump’s actions. Because neither DOJ nor Aileen Cannon can prevent these members of Congress from sharing details about these briefings (especially if they’re not classified), you should be unsurprised everyone to provide details of what Trump stole.

That might devolve into a matter of partisan bickering. But two things might moderate such bickering. First, Marco Rubio is on the ballot in November, and Val Demings has already criticized his knee-jerk defense of Trump.

Just as importantly, Mitch McConnell, who badly would like to prevent Democrats from expanding their majority in the Senate and just as badly would like the MAGA Republicans to go away, really doesn’t want to spend the next two months dodging questions about Trump’s crimes.

If not for Trump’s demand for a Special Master, DOJ likely would have put its head down and mentioned nothing of this investigation until after the election. But by demanding one — and by making such unreasonable requests — Trump has ensured that the investigation into his suspected violations of the Espionage Act and obstruction will dominate the news for at least a few more weeks.

Even if DOJ doesn’t brief the Gang of Eight, even if that doesn’t lead to damning new details and recriminations from being made public, the public nature of the Special Master fight will suck all the oxygen out of the next few weeks of campaign season, at least, just as it contributed to Joe Biden enjoying one of the most positive mid-term Augusts for any President in the last half-century.

But if new specifics about Trump’s negligence and efforts to obstruct the investigation are made public, then November’s election will be precisely what Republicans are trying to avoid it being: not just a response to the Dobbs ruling overturning protection for abortion access, but a referendum on the way Republicans have sacrificed American security in their fealty to Donald Trump.

Trump Proposes a New Plan to Steal Classified Documents

In the Trump stolen document case, the two sides have presented their plans for what they call a Special Master.

The government’s plan is a Special Master plan, one that would be finished by mid-October.

Trump’s plan is a plan to steal documents from intelligence agencies and to stall until close to the time — it seems to hope — Jim Jordan gets a gavel in Congress and so can muck up the criminal investigation into Trump’s theft and retheft.

The key differences between the two plans are as follows:

Trump proposes a plan to steal classified documents

Trump argues that even classified documents should go to the Special Master (and before that, his lawyers, including the one who is a witness in this investigation, Evan Corcoran) and effectively lets the Special Master override the decision of the Executive Branch over classification.

Plaintiff believes the Government’s objection to the Special Master reviewing documents they deem classified is misplaced. First, the Government’s position incorrectly presumes the outcome—that their separation of these documents is inviolable. Second, their stance wrongly assumes that if a document has a classification marking, it remains classified in perpetuity. Third, the Government continues to ignore the significance of the Presidential Records Act (“PRA”). If any seized document is a Presidential record, Plaintiff has an absolute right of access to it while access by others, including those in the executive branch, has specified limitations. Thus, President Trump (and/or his designee) cannot be denied access to those documents, which in this matter gives legal authorization to the Special Master to engage in first-hand review.3

Plaintiff anticipates filing a deeper analysis of these issues in upcoming filings.

There are a lot of problems with this claim, including that it treats Trump as the President still and utterly upends the precedent on classification that Trump himself is relying on for his claim to be able to declassify things, Navy v. Egan, not to mention the Obama-era Executive Order that remains the basis for authority over classification (and so was the basis for any claim Trump ever had to classify and declassify things). There is absolutely no basis, anywhere, for a private citizen to override the classification determinations of the Executive Branch, yet that is what Trump is proposing.

Crazier still, Trump envisions government documents with classification marks that his Special Master decides aren’t classified to be Presidential records. That’s not necessarily true! Many of these documents — and certainly the secrets they tell — belong to agencies, not any President. Effectively, this is a plan to convert secret CIA and NSA documents into the private playthings of Donald J. Trump, which he can access in perpetuity.

Under the government’s plan, the Special Master would never receive anything currently marked as classified. The government does note that some of the unmarked documents may be determined by the government to be classified.

As this process moves forward, if the government identifies any potentially classified information within the contents of any of the Seized Materials without Classification Markings, the government will so advise the Court and propose actions to ensure that any such material is handled appropriately.

Trump creates busy work and delay

The government proposes that Trump conduct an initial review and make claims on categorization; anything on which the two sides agree will bypass the Special Master process. Trump says the Special Master should look at everything not in the current potentially privileged bucket.

The government sets as a deadline October 17 for the entire review (implicitly setting a deadline on Trump’s own review too). It places a deadline of September 26 for Trump’s initial review. Trump envisions the process will take 90 days or more (and sets no deadlines for himself).

Trump wants to split the cost for the Special Master, whereas the government proposes Trump paying everything, which would disincent him from stalling indefinitely.

Trump envisions removing documents from investigators’ hands

Under the government plan, non-personal documents will either end up in investigators’ hands (if the Special Master doesn’t deem them to be Executive Privileged) or at NARA (if the Special Master does).

v. For any documents identified as Presidential records – not claimed by Plaintiff as subject to Executive Privilege, those documents shall remain in custody of the government, with copies sent to the Archivist of the United States, and may be used by the government forthwith for any lawful purpose, including in the government’s criminal investigation;

vi. For any documents identified as Presidential records – claimed by Plaintiff as subject to Executive Privilege, copies of those documents will be sent to the Archivist of the United States, and the process under the Presidential Records Act, 44 U.S.C. § 2201 et seq., may thereafter be followed.

Trump envisions Presidential Records to go to NARA, whether or not he succeeds in making an Executive Privilege claim, basically assuming that documents lawfully seized under a warrant should be taken out of the hands of the investigators.

e. Once the Special Master has completed the review process set forth in this Order and any dispute has been fully adjudicated, any documents identified as Presidential records will be returned to the Archivist of the United States, and the process under the Presidential Records Act, 44 U.S.C. § 2204, will be followed to determine the assertion of any restriction on access.

In either case, FBI can obtain a subpoena for documents if they have the need. Trump’s plan just introduces another way to muck up the process.

Trump wants the lawful owner of these documents excluded

The government plan requires the Special Master to consult with NARA before making final decisions about whether something is a Presidential Record or not.

c. In categorizing Seized Materials without Classification Markings as personal items or documents, on the one hand, or Presidential records, on the other hand, the Special Master will consult with the National Archives and Records Administration (“NARA”); the government will facilitate the Special Master’s consultations with NARA; and

Trump wants no involvement from NARA, the lawful owner of anything that is a Presidential Record.

Trump wants no paper trail

Trump wants to do this entire process without leaving a paper trail that the government (or a government appeal) can access. His ostensible logic — purportedly, that the Special Master must review things that even Trump and the government agree upon, which will add to the delay — is transparent bullshit. He says DOJ has already logged the materials (though the categories in question have changed), and so doesn’t need to see Trump’s logs before they get shared with the Special Master.

The principal difference in the parties’ workflow is that Plaintiff sends materials categorized by his counsel directly to the Special Master, while the Government proposes that it review Plaintiff’s categorization by logs to determine if it agrees or disagrees with the categorization. The Government anticipates that it may agree on many of the categorizations and thus minimize the workload of the Special Master and expedite the review. The Plaintiff contends that a full review of all seized documents remains an important part of the Special Master‘s duties, even if the parties ultimately agree as to the return of various seized items. As the Government has already reviewed and categorized the seized materials, the Plaintiff believes a review by the Plaintiff, and submission to the Special Master, is the appropriate process.

And since Trump doesn’t intend to share logs of his attorneys’ determinations with the government, much of the determinations will be made via ex parte discussions with the Special Master.

Because its workflow transmits all categories of documents to the Special Master without logs, Plaintiff proposes authorization for regular ex parte communications on categorization with only the Special Master’s final report and recommendation disclosed to the Government.

This will not only delay the entire process, but will prevent the government from obtaining some materials before determinations on all the documents are done. It will also hide what would surely be outrageous claims of declassification from the government and, ultimately, the public.

And by refusing to share a log with the government, Trump keeps the involvement of an attorney who is already a witness in the criminal investigation out of the hands of the government. And, as noted, this keeps any paper trail out of the hands of any appellate ruling.

Update: Section on logging and ex parte communication added.