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Judge Says He Will Unseal Parts of Affidavit That Led to Mar-a-Lago Search

The Wall Street Journal. 8/18/2022 Deborah Acosta, Sadie Gurman
© Lannis Waters/The Palm Beach Post/USA TODAY NETWORK

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.—A federal judge said Thursday that he would make public at least part of an affidavit detailing the evidence that led the FBI to search Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home last week, after a Justice Department official said a full release would jeopardize the investigation into the former president’s handling of classified information.

“I’m not prepared to find that the affidavit should be fully sealed,” said U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart, giving the Justice Department a week to suggest which portions should remain secret.

After reviewing the affidavit carefully “many times,” the judge said that in his view, “there are portions of this affidavit that can be unsealed.”

It could be some time before the public sees any of the document, as Judge Reinhart said he would assess the proposed redactions before unsealing it. If he disapproves of the government’s redactions, he will create his own redacted version and keep it under seal until the government has the opportunity to appeal.

Several advocacy groups and news-media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, petitioned the court to make the document public. Mr. Trump and his allies, including some in Congress, have also called for it to be made public.

“This is going to be a considered, careful process, where everybody’s rights, the government’s and the media’s, will be protected,” Judge Reinhart said.

The document would provide details about how the FBI established probable cause for its search, which led to the removal from the premises of more than two dozen boxes, including 11 sets of classified documents, some marked top secret.

It would also lay out what evidence the government had collected, including that provided by any witnesses, and describe why investigators believe a crime may have been committed.

“All the information that the court relied upon is in the written affidavit,” said Judge Reinhart, who signed the warrant earlier this month and last week made public that warrant and the inventory of items the FBI took from Mar-a-Lago.

During the hourlong hearing, Jay Bratt, chief of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence and export-control section, said the affidavit is “very detailed and reasonably lengthy” and that the matter’s “national-security overtones” outweigh the public’s interest in having the document made public. He said going through the exercise of redacting the document would pose a burden on the government.

“It’s up to the public to decide what information is important,” said Charles Tobin, who represented many of the news outlets. He argued that much information has already been reported and that there was substantial public interest in the FBI’s unprecedented action.

“We oppose blanket restrictions particularly under the argument that it would be cumbersome to the government,” lawyer Nellie King, representing the Florida Center for Government Accountability, said during the hearing.

The Aug. 8 search of Mr. Trump’s Florida home set off a furious political response, with the former president’s supporters and Republican lawmakers accusing the Justice Department of overreach.

In a posting on his social-media platform Tuesday, Mr. Trump called for the release of the unredacted affidavit, referred to the search as a break-in and called for the recusal of the judge in the matter. Earlier this year, without citing a reason, Judge Reinhart withdrew from a racketeering lawsuit Mr. Trump filed against the Democratic National Committee, Hillary Clinton and others over their claims that his campaign had colluded with Russia.

On Thursday, Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said on Twitter, “No redactions should be necessary and the whole affidavit should be released.”

Justice Department officials have defended the Mar-a-Lago search as a necessary step that Attorney General Merrick Garland approved after weeks of deliberation.

FBI agents took boxes of items, binders of photos, a handwritten note and the executive grant of clemency for Mr. Trump’s ally Roger Stone, a list of items removed from the property showed. They also took information about the president of France, according to the three-page list. The list is contained in a seven-page document that includes the warrant to search the premises, signed by Judge Reinhart.

The list includes references to one set of documents marked as “Various classified/TS/SCI documents,” an abbreviation that refers to top-secret/sensitive compartmented information. It also says agents collected four sets of top-secret documents, three sets of secret documents and three sets of confidential documents.

Corrections & Amplifications Nellie King represents the Florida Center for Government Accountability. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Florida Center for Public Accountability. (Corrected on Aug. 18.)

Write to Deborah Acosta at deborah.acosta@wsj.com and Sadie Gurman at sadie.gurman@wsj.com

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