Hearing on Trump's request for a special master to review Mar-a-Lago docs

By Tierney Sneed, Kara Scannell, Adrienne Vogt, Aditi Sangal, Elise Hammond and Maureen Chowdhury, CNN

Updated 8:28 PM ET, Thu September 1, 2022
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2:48 p.m. ET, September 1, 2022

Federal judge will rule later on Trump’s special master request after hearing concludes

From CNN's Tierney Sneed and Kara Scannell

The hearing on former President Donald Trump's bid for a special master to review documents seized from Mar-a-Lago has concluded. 

US District Judge Aileen Cannon did not make a ruling from the bench. 

6:56 p.m. ET, September 1, 2022

Here is a breakdown of the key players involved in today's hearing

From CNN's Tierney Sneed and Marshall Cohen

Attorneys for former President Donald Trump arrive at the federal court in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Thursday.
Attorneys for former President Donald Trump arrive at the federal court in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Thursday. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

In a hearing in Florida, a federal judge is considering former President Donald Trump's bid for a special master to review evidence the FBI seized at his Mar-a-Lago resort last month.

Here are the key players who might be in court:

Judge Aileen Cannon: She is the judge overseeing this case. She was appointed to the federal bench by Trump in 2020, and was confirmed by the Senate shortly after Trump lost the 2020 presidential election. She graduated from University of Michigan Law School and told lawmakers during her confirmation process that her mother fled communist Cuba.

Juan Antonio Gonzalez, Jr.: The US Attorney for Southern District of Florida, Gonzalez' name is one of two DOJ signatories that have been on all the filings in the submissions in both this case and the effort by various organizations' to unseal certain warrant documents. It's been notable that no lower level prosecutors from his office — the so-called "line attorneys," who usually handle the day-to-day in court — have been signing on to the publicly filed documents.

Jay Bratt: The chief of counterintelligence at the DOJ's National Security Division, Bratt has played a prominent role in the litigation around the Mar-a-Lago filings after being the DOJ's point of contact with the Trump team over obtaining the documents from Mar-a-Lago. His name has joined Gonzalez' in the filings in the dispute over releasing the warrant documents and he also argued on behalf of the DOJ in a hearing last month in the latter case. He has not entered an appearance however in the special warrant case being heard Thursday so it's unclear whether he will be present at the arguments. Bratt was also the DOJ attorney, joined by a handful of FBI agents, who visited Mar-a-Lago on June 3 to retrieve classified documents that had been subpoenaed by a grand jury — an episode that was discussed at length in the DOJ's response.

Christopher Kise: A recent addition to Trump's legal team who entered his appearance in the case just Thursday morning. Kise is a former Florida solicitor general who served in Gov. Ron DeSantis' transition team. 

James Trusty: He is one of Trump’s lawyers who has been handling matters related to classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. He is a former federal prosecutor. Trump’s spokesperson has previously touted Trusty’s experience, saying he has “litigated some of the most complex cases in American history.” He has done interviews in right-wing media, criticizing the FBI investigation and pledging to mount more legal challenges.

Lindsey Halligan: She is another member of Trump’s legal team. She said on Fox News that the Mar-a-Lago search “may be the first step to tyranny” in America. Early in the case, she bungled the formal process of entering her appearance in the court docket, and was instructed by the court clerk to refile her paperwork and to comply with local procedures.

12:36 p.m. ET, September 1, 2022

Key pieces of the Mar-a-Lago photo — and what they mean

From CNN's Josh Campbell and Katie Bo Lillis

Included in the government's latest court filing — in its effort to investigate Donald Trump's handling of classified materials — is a single, tantalizing photograph showing an array of documents found on the property of the former president's Florida resort.

Taken by the FBI, the photograph shows several documents labeled with so-called "classification markings." These government codes are designed to indicate the sensitivity of the information they refer to — and the rules for how it is meant to be handled.

Here's what we can learn from the markings in the photograph:

Will Mullery and Alberto Mier, CNN
Will Mullery and Alberto Mier, CNN
  1. Time magazine covers. These are not classified, but they were apparently placed among classified documents.
  2. Cover sheet for information classified SECRET/SCI, or sensitive compartmented information. Cover sheets serve two purposes: To allow the handler of the information to know what level of classification they are dealing with and to shield the contents of the classified material from someone without a “need to know.” The cover sheet itself is not classified.
  3. Cover sheet for information classified TOP SECRET/SCI. If inappropriately disclosed, TOP SECRET level information can cause “grave damage” to national security, according to the government’s definition.
  4. Ruler placed by the FBI shows the scale of the photograph, which is standard practice for photographic evidence.
  5. White House document marked “Confidential.” This is the lowest level of classification, but CONFIDENTIAL level information can still cause “damage” to national security if it is inappropriately disclosed, according to the government’s definition.
  6. Documents marked SECRET with the controls of ORCON and NOFORN. ORCON stands for “originator controlled” and it means that the agency that owns the information must approve its release or dissemination. NOFORN indicates that the information cannot be released to foreign nationals without approval. Both of these are fairly common markings.
  7. This "top secret" cover sheet has HCS-P/SI/TK control markings. HCS-P stands for “HUMINT control system product,” and it indicates that the information was derived from clandestine human sources. SI stands for Special Intelligence, and suggests that the information was derived from what is called “signals intelligence” — things like intercepted foreign phone calls and emails, for example. TK stands for Talent Keyhole, which is a highly classified government satellite program.

Dig deeper here

12:05 p.m. ET, September 1, 2022

The other notable investigations and lawsuits Trump is facing

From CNN's Dan Berman

Former President Donald Trump spekas at the America First Agenda Summit in July.
Former President Donald Trump spekas at the America First Agenda Summit in July. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Former President Donald Trump's legal troubles continue to build — not just with the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago last month.

Multiple federal and state investigations are ongoing regarding the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, his handling of confidential documents and his family business. Civil lawsuits accusing Trump of defamation and spurring on US Capitol rioters also remain on the docket.

Aside from the the investigation into Trump’s handling of White House documents, here’s a list of other notable investigations and lawsuits he is facing:

Jan. 6 and overturning the election: House select committee and Justice Department

The House select committee investigating the US Capitol attack has uncovered dramatic evidence of Trump’s actions before and on Jan. 6, especially efforts to use the levers of government to overturn the election.

The Justice Department is watching —and has an investigation of its own — so while there’s an outstanding question if the committee will recommend any charges for DOJ, it’s not a requirement for the feds to act if the committee does make a referral.

2020 election: Efforts to overturn Georgia results

Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis is overseeing a special grand jury investigating what Trump or his allies may have done in their efforts to overturn President Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia.

Willis, a Democrat, has informed all 16 of the individuals who signed an “unofficial electoral certificate,” which was ultimately sent to the National Archives in late 2020, that they may be indicted in the probe.

Trump Organization: New York Attorney General criminal and civil investigation

Trump this week took the Fifth at his deposition in New York Attorney General Letitia James’ investigation of his namesake business in response to hundreds of questions.

The investigation is nearing the end and James’ office said it needed to question the Trump family to determine who had responsibility for the financial statements at the center of the investigation. Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump also recently were deposed and did answer questions. Eric Trump was questioned in 2020 and declined to answer more than 500 questions.

11:51 a.m. ET, September 1, 2022

Thursday's hearing will mark the first time Trump's lawyers will argue in court about the Mar-a-Lago search

From CNN's Tierney Sneed

A hearing will begin soon in West Palm Beach, Florida, regarding former President Donald Trump's request that a so-called special master be appointed to review the evidence the FBI seized at his Mar-a-Lago resort last month.

Thursday's hearing will mark the first time Trump's lawyers will argue in court about the search.

Trump never sought to formally intervene in the separate court fight that played out before a magistrate judge over releasing certain warrant documents. His attorney Christina Bobb showed up in the audience for a hearing in that dispute last month, but just to observe.

With Tuesday's filing, the Department of Justice made public an attestation she signed to certify that classified materials subpoenaed from Trump in June had been diligently searched for and produced to the FBI. That the FBI found 100 more classified documents in the search in August called 'into serious question" her representations in the attestation.

Meanwhile, Trump has added a new attorney — former Florida solicitor general Chris Kise — to his team. He did so after the initial lawsuit filed by his team was flagged by the judge as missing basic legal elements about the request.

11:24 a.m. ET, September 1, 2022

The US government has recovered more than 320 classified documents from Mar-a-Lago, according to DOJ filing

From CNN's Marshall Cohen

This image, contained in a court filing by the Department of Justice and redacted in part by the FBI, shows a photo of documents seized during the August 8 search of Mar-a-Lago.
This image, contained in a court filing by the Department of Justice and redacted in part by the FBI, shows a photo of documents seized during the August 8 search of Mar-a-Lago. (Department of Justice/AP)

The US government has recovered more than 320 classified documents from Mar-a-Lago, according to Justice Department court filings, including more than one hundred seized in the August search according to the newest court filing.

The government took custody of documents three times this year: Trump voluntarily turned over 15 boxes to the National Archives in January, Trump’s team turned over some materials under subpoena in June, and FBI agents seized another 33 boxes during the search of Mar-a-Lago earlier this month. 

How this breaks down:

  • The FBI affidavit used to secure a search warrant — which was unsealed with redactions last week — revealed that there were 184 unique classified documents in the boxes that the Archives received in January. This included 25 records with “top secret” classification, according to the affidavit. 
  • In a court filing Tuesday, prosecutors said they received 38 unique classified documents as part of Trump’s compliance with a subpoena in June. This included 17 “top secret” documents, prosecutors added. 
  • And prosecutors also said that FBI agents recovered over 100 unique classified documents during the search of Mar-a-Lago on August 8.

Taken together, that means there were at least 322 classified documents that Trump took with him when he left to the White House, and brought to Mar-a-Lago, that have now been reclaimed by the US government.

More context: A Trump lawyer signed a statement to the Justice Department in June attesting that all of the classified material at Mar-a-Lago had been returned. But, the Justice Department wrote in Tuesday’s court filing that FBI investigators recovered “twice as many” classified documents than what Trump returned after being served with a subpoena.  

10:48 a.m. ET, September 1, 2022

Takeaways from the historic DOJ court filing on the Mar-a-Lago search

From CNN's Jeremy Herb, Marshall Cohen and Tierney Sneed

An aerial view of Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida.
An aerial view of Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida. (Steve Helber/AP/File)

Former President Donald Trump has pushed an "incomplete and inaccurate narrative" in his recent court filings about the Mar-a-Lago search, the Justice Department said in a historic court filing late Tuesday night.

Prosecutors fleshed out new details about the ongoing criminal investigation into Trump's potential mishandling of classified documents, which he took from the White House to his resort and home in Florida. Trump and his allies have denied any wrongdoing.

In total, the US government has recovered more than 320 classified documents from Mar-a-Lago since January, including more than 100 seized in the August search, the DOJ says.

The filing is in response to Trump's bid for a "special master" in a civil lawsuit against the Justice Department, weeks after the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago. The judge handling the case, a Trump appointee, has said her "preliminary intent" is to bring in a special master. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday at 1 p.m. ET.

Here are some key takeaways from the filing, what we learned and where we go from here:

  • Documents were possibly moved and hidden from investigators: Documents were "likely concealed and removed" from a storage room at Mar-a-Lago as part of an effort to "obstruct" the FBI's investigation, the Justice Department said in its filing Tuesday. What's more, the DOJ said that the search "cast serious doubt" on his lawyers' claims that there had been a "diligent search" to return classified material in response to a grand jury subpoena. A Trump lawyer signed a statement to the Justice Department in June attesting that all of the classified material at Mar-a-Lago had been returned. "That the FBI, in a matter of hours, recovered twice as many documents with classification markings as the 'diligent search' that the former President's counsel and other representatives had weeks to perform calls into serious question the representations made in the June 3 certification and casts doubt on the extent of cooperation in this matter," DOJ wrote.
  • DOJ rejects Trump criticisms and falsehood about FBI search: The Justice Department filing gave federal investigators the chance to rebut — on the record — many of the claims that Trump, his lawyers and his political allies have been making as they've harshly attacked the FBI's unprecedented search of his residence. DOJ wrote that the filing included a "detailed recitation of the relevant facts, many of which are provided to correct the incomplete and inaccurate narrative set forth in Plaintiff's filings." The filing cited numerous examples refuting claims that have come from Trump's team about the search and what happened in the lead-up to it. For instance, a top DOJ official contends that federal investigators were limited in what they could look through when visiting the Mar-a-Lago resort in June — contrary to the Trump team's narrative of total cooperation.
  • A special master would impede review of national security risks, DOJ says: The Justice Department argued in its court filing Tuesday that appointing a special master to review the materials taken from Trump's residence would harm national security, arguing it would delay the intelligence community's ongoing review of documents that were kept at Mar-a-Lago. "Appointment of a special master would impede the government's ongoing criminal investigation and -- if the special master were tasked with reviewing classified documents -- would impede the Intelligence Community from conducting its ongoing review of the national security risk that improper storage of these highly sensitive materials may have caused and from identifying measures to rectify or mitigate any damage that improper storage caused," Justice Department lawyers wrote.

11:49 a.m. ET, September 1, 2022

Here's what a "special master" is and what it would mean for the materials seized from Trump's Mar-a-Lago

From CNN's Paul LeBlanc

Former President Donald Trump's push for a special master to oversee the Department of Justice's review of the evidence gathered at Mar-a-Lago enters a critical moment as a hearing is set to begin soon Thursday on the request.

A federal judge has signaled a "preliminary intent" to grant the request, which could bring new complications to the DOJ's closely watched investigation into the White House documents Trump took to his Florida residence.

Here's what a special master is and what it would mean for the materials seized from Mar-a-Lago:

What is a special master? A special master is a third-party attorney appointed by a court to oversee part of a certain case.

If appointed in Trump's case, the special master would oversee the Justice Department's review of the evidence gathered from his beach club and filter out privileged material that may have been seized in the search.

Why does Trump want a special master? Trump's legal team is broadly arguing that a special master is necessary to ensure the Justice Department returns any of his private documents seized during the search of Mar-a-Lago.

The former President's attorneys say his constitutional rights were violated, and that there may have been privileged materials seized. But in court filings, Trump has not elaborated on what exactly he hoped a special master would filter out, besides general allusions to "privileged and potentially privileged materials."

What is the Justice Department's stance? The department has already signaled that it is using an internal filter team to review the seized items, to separate material that could be subject to privilege claims.

DOJ said in a court filing Monday it has identified "a limited set of materials" from its search of documents taken from Mar-a-Lago that potentially contain material covered by attorney-client privilege and is in the process of addressing privilege disputes.

Justice officials also confirmed that US intelligence officials are reviewing the documents for classified materials.

Investigators have already mentioned the work of a filter team when they returned to Trump private documents that wouldn't be part of the investigation, such as two expired passports and his diplomatic passport.

The Justice Department, in court documents, has said it believed the evidence it collected at Mar-a-Lago will support its criminal investigation into the mishandling of federal records, including national defense material, after Trump's team took boxes of records to Florida when he left office.

The probe is also looking at potential obstruction of justice in the investigation.

10:13 a.m. ET, September 1, 2022

Key things to know about the Trump-appointed judge who is leading today's hearing 

From CNN's Devan Cole

Aileen Cannon appears virtually before the Senate Judiciary Committee in July 2020.
Aileen Cannon appears virtually before the Senate Judiciary Committee in July 2020. (Senate Judiciary Committee)

Former President Donald Trump's request for a "special master" to oversee the review of evidence gathered in the FBI's search of his Mar-a-Lago estate has thrust one of his own judicial appointees into the middle of his latest legal and political drama.

District Court Judge Aileen Cannon in the Southern District of Florida, who was nominated by Trump to the bench in 2020, is handling the former President's request for the special master, a third-party attorney who would filter out privileged material seized in the search.

Cannon has put both Trump's team and the Justice Department on notice that she had a "preliminary intent" to appoint a special master, though she cautioned that it should not be construed as her final decision on the matter. A hearing is set for Thursday at 1 p.m. ET.

She was nominated to her post by Trump in May 2020 and the Senate confirmed her by a vote of 56-21 just days after the presidential election.

Prior to taking office, Cannon served as an assistant US attorney in Florida, where she worked in the Major Crimes Division and as an appellate attorney, according to written answers she gave to the Senate during her confirmation process.

Following graduation from University of Michigan Law School, Cannon clerked for a federal judge and later practiced law at a firm in Washington, DC, where she handled a range of cases, including some related to "government investigations," according to her statements given to the Senate in 2020.

Before fielding questions at a confirmation hearing with the Senate Judiciary Committee, Cannon, whose mother fled communist Cuba, thanked members of her family and shared the impact of their experience on her on life.

Already, Cannon is facing some criticism for how she's handled the Trump case. Last week, she identified several shortcomings in Trump's initial request for more oversight for the FBI's review of the evidence seized and asked him to elaborate on the ask. Though his new response filed on Friday appeared to fall short of the elaboration she was seeking, observers have argued that she was being overly generous when she essentially gave his team a second chance to ask for the special master.

Read more about the judge here.