A Florida federal judge appointed by Donald Trump has barred the Justice Department from using the thousands of government-owned documents seized during the Aug. 8 search of his property to advance an ongoing criminal investigation into the former president.
The order issued Monday by US District Judge Aileen Cannon temporarily prevents federal government law enforcement from acting on what most legal experts say is overwhelming evidence that Trump violated several federal laws that establish criminal penalties for mishandling national defense information and obstruction of justice.
The government will not be able to use any evidence seized at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence until an independent expert determines whether each item seized may be protected by attorney or executive client privilege, even though Trump is no longer president and cannot protect the records of the executive branch. The process to appoint the special expert and review the documents could take weeks or months, giving Trump some respite from the most serious legal danger he has faced.
Although legal experts and the government say the use of an expert was not warranted after Trump asked for one two weeks after his home was searched, Judge Cannon said she granted his request in part because of the “undeniably unprecedented nature of registering the residence of a former president”, the “importance of maintaining institutional confidence” in the justice system, and what he described as “the interest in guaranteeing the integrity of an orderly process in the midst of accusations of bias and media leaks.
Judge Cannon justified the decision by citing Trump’s assertion that he would be irreparably harmed by “the threat of future prosecution and the severe and often indelible stigma associated with it.”
“Based on plaintiff’s former position as President of the United States, the stigma associated with the seizure in question is in a league of its own. A future indictment, based on whatever degree of property should be returned, would result in reputational damage of a decidedly different order of magnitude,” he wrote.
While his order blocks the criminal investigation into the former president from moving forward, it allowed Intelligence Community agents to proceed with an ongoing review into whether Trump’s hoarding of sensitive national defense information at his Palm Beach club endangered national security.
The Independent I had previously reported that Trump’s possession of classified documents relating to human intelligence sources and signal intelligence gathering will force the US Intelligence Community to shut down long-running operations and extract human sources from hostile environments, as agents will have to assume that everything Trump hoarded has already been seen by hostile actors.
Although the Justice Department can appeal its ruling, while it is in effect, it will protect the former president from being charged with any crime based on evidence found during the search of his home.
Legal experts were quick to condemn the decision as having little basis in fact or case law.
Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law who specializes in the federal court system, called the Trump-appointed judge’s decision “absurd,” particularly the section prohibiting the government from using materials has already impounded Trump.
Goodbye hoping Judge Cannon bent over to look like she was pandering to Trump. This is twisting the law in a way that is not supported by precedent and is unlikely to be followed in any future case,” she wrote, adding that it was “just a sad day for the courts.”
Ted Boutros, a veteran attorney and partner at Gibson, Dunn, said the judge’s order was “riddled with fundamental legal errors” and called it “the opposite of judicial restraint.”
Another veteran of federal court practice, former Wachtell Lipton partner George Conway, also took to Twitter to call the judge’s decision “absolutely insane.”
The Florida judge’s order came just two days after the man who appointed her to the federal bench called for a Justice Department investigation into whether he endangered the nation he once led by hoarding secret stolen documents, and will be dispatched against the Department of Justice and the FBI during a political rally in Wikes Barre, Pennsylvania.
Trump condemned the legal search of his property as “shameful” and “a travesty of justice,” and accused the FBI of “trying to destroy our country” on behalf of Democrats by investigating whether he committed a series of serious federal crimes.
“Whether through activist attorneys general…Democratic local attorneys, county attorneys, congressional committees, or federal agencies, radical Democrats are engaging in a desperate attempt to prevent him from returning to the White House,” Trump said, qualifying investigations into whether he violated federal laws designed to protect the nation’s national defense secrets or state laws against election rigging are illegitimate and overtly political.
According to court documents, FBI agents found more than 10,000 unclassified government documents spread across 27 boxes when they searched the twice-impeached former president’s home and office at his Mar-a-Lago country club.
Agents also discovered more than 100 “unique documents with classification marks,” including three kept in Trump’s desk. Classification levels ranged from confidential – the lowest level of classification in the US system – to the highest, top secret.