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Trump Lawyers Dispute Classified Status of Seized Documents

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 9/12/2022 Jan Wolfe, Aruna Viswanatha, Sadie Gurman
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WASHINGTON—Lawyers for former President Donald Trump pressed a federal judge to allow an independent attorney to review all of the documents the FBI seized in its search of Mar-a-Lago, including those marked classified, saying they didn’t trust the Justice Department to accurately represent what was in them.

“The Government has not proven these records remain classified. That issue is to be determined later,” Mr. Trump’s lawyers wrote in a Monday morning filing to U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon, who last week ordered the appointment of a special master in the matter.

They disputed the status of around 100 documents marked as classified, which the Justice Department had signaled were central to a criminal investigation, providing their most specific arguments yet to counter prosecutors’ request to continue evaluating the documents for national-security concerns.

“In opposing any neutral review of the seized materials, the Government seeks to block a reasonable first step towards restoring order from chaos and increasing public confidence in the integrity of the process,” the Trump legal team said.

Separately, Mr. Trump’s lawyers and prosecutors later on Monday are expected to comment on each others’ candidates for the special-master role.

Monday’s brief from Mr. Trump is the latest in a flurry of court filings in what has become a procedurally complicated dispute, one that has led judges overseeing the matter to face threats.

Last week, a Houston woman was arrested on federal charges of threatening a federal official and communicating across state lines with a threat to injure, after she left menacing messages with Judge Cannon’s chamber. That followed other threats directed at Judge Bruce Reinhart, a magistrate judge who earlier approved the warrant for the Aug. 8 search of Mar-a-Lago.

The woman, Tiffani Shea Gish, said she was “in charge of nuclear for the United States Government,” that Mr. Trump was “disqualified” and “marked for assassination.” “I’m also Trump’s hitman, so consider it a bullet to your head from Donald Trump himself,” the woman said, according to an FBI complaint, threatening in another message that she would shoot Judge Cannon in front of her children.

A lawyer for Ms. Gish couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

“In what at its core is a document storage dispute that has spiraled out of control, the Government wrongfully seeks to criminalize the possession by the 45th President of his own Presidential and personal records,” Mr. Trump’s lawyers wrote.

The Justice Department didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. The government’s response to the court is expected later Monday.

The court fight began on Aug. 22, when Mr. Trump’s lawyers petitioned for the appointment of a special master to review the documents seized at Mar-a-Lago last month and filter out any privileged materials.

U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon in South Florida said Sept. 5 she was granting Mr. Trump’s request. In her order, she halted the Justice Department’s investigation into the former president’s handling of presidential records, including all classified material, until the special master has reviewed the thousands of pages of documents taken from the former president’s residence and private club.

Three days later, the Justice Department tried to restart its investigation, with the aid of intelligence personnel, into any national-security risks presented by the classified documents, asking Judge Cannon to put part of her ruling on hold.

Prosecutors sought the judge’s permission to resume their review of the 100 classified documents that are at the heart of the investigation, asserting there is no need for a special master to be involved. The documents are government property, the Justice Department said, so Mr. Trump can’t claim the documents should be returned to him.

The Justice Department has also said it would appeal Judge Cannon’s special-master appointment. Legal experts have said prosecutors might not bother with an appeal if Judge Cannon grants their request for emergency relief.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers indicated on Friday that they would oppose the government’s request for access to the limited set of documents. Monday’s brief from the former president’s team more fully addressed the Justice Department’s request for interim relief.

The Justice Department and Mr. Trump have also said they would provide additional comments on who should serve as special master.

In a joint filing on Friday, the Justice Department proposed two candidates for the role, and Mr. Trump’s lawyers proposed two other candidates.

Mr. Trump’s team recommended Raymond J. Dearie, former chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York who also served on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and Paul Huck Jr., a former partner at Jones Day who founded his own law firm and served as general counsel to former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.

The government suggested Barbara S. Jones, a retired federal judge from the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York. She served as the special master who sorted through the materials seized by the government from Mr. Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen, and later reprised that role after then-Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s office and home were raided.

The department also suggested Thomas B. Griffith, a retired judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Mr. Griffith, a George W. Bush appointee who is now special counsel at Hunton Andrews Kurth, recently served on President Biden’s commission to study changes to the Supreme Court.

In Friday’s court filing, prosecutors told Judge Cannon that they had gotten Mr. Trump’s two proposed candidates shortly after 6 p.m. on Friday—hours before a midnight deadline. Because of that timing, the joint court filing said, the parties would lay out on Monday “their respective positions on the other party’s proposed candidates.”

Write to Aruna Viswanatha at Aruna.Viswanatha@wsj.com and Sadie Gurman at sadie.gurman@wsj.com

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