Special Master’s Review in Trump Case Ends as Appeal Court’s Ruling Takes Effect

WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court on Thursday brought to an end a special master’s review of sensitive documents the F.B.I. had seized from former President Donald J. Trump’s private club and residence in Florida, concluding a court fight that had delayed the Justice Department’s investigation for nearly three months.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta acted after Mr. Trump’s lawyers chose not to contest its decision last week shutting down a lawsuit by Mr. Trump that had imposed a special master. The court had given him a week to challenge the decision before it took effect.

The move ended the special master’s review and lifted an injunction that had blocked prosecutors from using the seized materials as evidence. The step formally removed a significant obstacle to the inquiry into whether Mr. Trump illegally retained national security secrets at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., and obstructed government efforts to recover them.

The ruling last week by the appeals court panel, which included two Trump appointees, vacated an order issued in September by a fellow Trump appointee, Judge Aileen M. Cannon of the Southern District of Florida. It also ordered her to dismiss the lawsuit.

Judge Cannon’s decision to impose the special master, Judge Raymond J. Dearie, was unusual because she intervened before there were any charges — treating Mr. Trump differently from ordinary targets of search warrants. She also directed Judge Dearie to consider whether some of the seized files should be permanently kept from investigators under executive privilege, a claim that has never successfully been made in a criminal case.

More on the Trump Documents Inquiry

  • More Documents Found: A search team hired by former President Donald J. Trump found at least two items with classified markings at a Florida storage site, a person familiar with the matter said.
  • Special Master: An appeals court shut down a special master’s review of files seized from Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, removing a major obstacle to the Justice Department’s investigation.
  • Special Counsel: Attorney General Merrick B. Garland appointed Jack Smith, a longtime prosecutor, to take over the documents inquiry and the investigation into Mr. Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 attack.

The dismissal of the special master’s review dealt a final blow to Mr. Trump, whose request that a judge intervene repeatedly backfired.

Even though the special master’s review has yielded no definitive result, Mr. Trump still has to pay for nearly three months of work. It is unclear how much the effort has cost, but Judge Dearie, a senior judge who is all but retired, worked without extra pay. Still, the price included hiring a vendor to scan about 13,000 documents and photographs, and paying for an assistant who billed $550 an hour.

The litigation also undercut Mr. Trump’s public assertions that he had declassified everything he took to Mar-a-Lago before leaving office. His defense lawyers resisted Judge Dearie’s invitation to repeat that claim in court, where there are professional consequences for lying, and in September, an appeals court panel drew attention to the lack of evidence of any declassification.

Judge Dearie never had a chance to file a report and recommendations to Judge Cannon about how she should handle disputes between the Justice Department and Mr. Trump’s lawyers about the seized materials. But various court filings describing those disputes could portend any legal fights that may emerge.

If the special counsel now leading the documents investigation, Jack Smith, decides to charge Mr. Trump or some of his aides, defense lawyers could ask the judge in the case to suppress evidence obtained through the search of Mar-a-Lago.

In their filings to Judge Dearie, Mr. Trump’s lawyers insisted that many of the seized files were protected by executive privilege. The Justice Department argued that sort of privilege can never be invoked to keep executive branch materials from another part of the executive branch — in this case, the department’s investigators — let alone when the claim was being made by a former president without the support of the current one.

Because the case is being shut down before any definitive ruling on that issue, Mr. Trump’s lawyers could raise it again.

Mr. Trump’s legal team also made sweeping claims that he personally owned batches of records that the Justice Department maintained were public property under the Presidential Records Act. Among those public records were materials used to support clemency applications Mr. Trump received as president.

The 11th Circuit did not address the merits of Mr. Trump’s claims about personally owning much of the material, calling that question irrelevant for the issue at hand since investigators seize personal property as evidence all the time in executing search warrants.

In September, a similar panel of the 11th Circuit had granted an earlier request by the Justice Department to regain access to about 103 documents marked as classified, some highly so, that Judge Cannon had blocked investigators from using until the special master’s review was completed and she decided any remaining disputes.

That panel included the same two Trump appointees as the one that dismissed the entire lawsuit last week, Andrew L. Brasher and Britt Grant.

Mr. Trump appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, but the justices declined to intervene.

Last month, facing a series of setbacks in the courts, Mr. Trump raged on social media about “Republican judges” who “go ‘ROGUE!’” to signal their independence from “those who appointed them.”

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