What to expect from Thursday’s hearing on unsealing the Mar-a-Lago search affidavit

Written by on August 18, 2022

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(WASHINGTON) — A magistrate judge in Florida is set to hear in-person arguments Thursday on a request from a coalition of media outlets to make public the affidavit supporting the search warrant executed at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate last week.

The Justice Department earlier this week urged the judge, Bruce Reinhart, to keep the affidavit under seal, arguing that if it were to be made public it could “cause significant and irreparable damage” to an ongoing criminal investigation involving highly classified materials related to national security.

“If disclosed, the affidavit would serve as a roadmap to the government’s ongoing investigation, providing specific details about its direction and likely course, in a manner that is highly likely to compromise future investigative steps,” officials said in a Monday filing, noting that the affidavit contained “highly sensitive information about witnesses” already interviewed by the government.

“In addition, information about witnesses is particularly sensitive given the high-profile nature of this matter and the risk that the revelation of witness identities would impact their willingness to cooperate with the investigation,” the DOJ’s filing said. “Disclosure of the government’s affidavit at this stage would also likely chill future cooperation by witnesses whose assistance may be sought as this investigation progresses, as well as in other high-profile investigations.”

ABC News and a number of other media organizations have called for the release of the affidavit, noting the historical significance of the unprecedented law enforcement search of a former president’s residence and the “immediate and intense public interest as well as a vociferous reaction from Mr. Trump and his allies.”

It is unclear how Judge Reinhart will ultimately rule on the request, but the Justice Department has requested that if he were to order even a “partial unsealing” of the affidavit that they be given a chance to provide the court with proposed redactions.

Officials said in their Monday filing, however, that they believed the redactions that would be necessary to protect the investigation “would be so extensive as to render the remaining unsealed text devoid of meaningful content.”

DOJ would likely seek an immediate appeal on any ruling by Judge Reinhart that would reveal further substantive details underlying their investigation.

The government said, though, it would not object to the unsealing of other materials filed in connection with the warrant, such as cover sheets for the application, the government’s motion to keep the warrant under seal and Judge Reinhart’s original sealing order — none of which will likely reveal much beyond the materials already disclosed.

The redacted copy of the search warrant released last Friday sent shockwaves through Washington, as it revealed the Justice Department was investigating the potential violation of at least three separate criminal statutes in its search of Mar a Lago, including obstruction of justice and one crime under the Espionage Act.

A property receipt accompanying the warrant shows agents seized 11 boxes of documents of various classifications, including one set referring to “classified/TS/SCI documents” (the acronym stands for top secret/sensitive compartmentalized information that not everyone with even top-secret clearance can view) and four other sets of top-secret documents.

The documents were discovered by authorities after a lawyer for Trump signed a statement in June to the FBI affirming that all classified documents on the premises had been handed over to investigators, sources confirmed to ABC News.

It’s not immediately clear whether lawyers for President Trump will be present at Thursday’s hearing in Florida.

Trump in recent days has called for the “immediate release” of the affidavit while leveling various attacks at the FBI and Justice Department, while also demanding over his social media website that the documents be returned to him. But Trump’s legal team has yet to take any sort of legal action on either front in response to the search.

Former Trump White House counsel Pat Cipollone and former deputy White House counsel Pat Philbin are among multiple other witnesses interviewed by the FBI as part of its investigation, ABC News confirmed Tuesday, with sources saying both sat with investigators sometime in the spring. But there’s no indication that the Justice Department’s filing referencing officials’ hopes of protecting witnesses who testified in the investigation was a direct reference to Cipollone or Philbin.

ABC News’ John Santucci contributed to this report.

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