Trump asks court to appoint a third party to review records seized in FBI search
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
Former President Donald Trump has asked for the appointment of a special master to review the materials seized by the FBI from his Florida home. Trump's lawyers also want to block investigators from any further review of the documents until that special master is appointed. A letter leaked by Trump's legal team, which the National Archives has now released publicly, confirms that highly classified material was being stored at Mar-a-Lago. Joining us now is David Laufman. He's an attorney who formerly led the Justice Department's counterintelligence section from 2014 to 2018. David, I mentioned a special master. So what is a special master? What does this person do?
DAVID LAUFMAN: Well, a special master is an individual - commonly an attorney; it could be a former judge - who is usually appointed by courts in cases where attorney-client-privileged material is demonstrably at risk. For example, in the prosecution of Michael Cohen in New York - Michael Cohen was former President Trump's personal lawyer. But that's pretty improbable here, given that what's at issue are federal government records. In any event, the Department of Justice has told the former president that it is using a - what's called a filter team of agents to identify any truly attorney-client-privileged material to prevent it from coming into the hands of the investigative team. And this procedure, the filter procedure was approved by the magistrate judge.
MARTINEZ: And David, this is really Donald Trump's first move in this legal battle over the FBI search of his home. Why do you think he wants a special master to be appointed?
LAUFMAN: You know, I think it's prominently a further attempt to undermine public confidence in the independence and integrity of the Department of Justice and the FBI, part of his narrative of attack on our government institutions. And secondly, I think he just wants to delay this process as long as he can.
MARTINEZ: And that would be what would happen if a special master is appointed, possibly?
LAUFMAN: If a special master were appointed, then, you know, he or she would be given some time in which to review the records that the government has obtained through the production by the Trump team to Mar-a-Lago and what the government has recovered from the search. And they would sift through materials to determine if anything is truly privileged or not.
MARTINEZ: If this stretches out, though, would our national security be at risk at all, considering what we know already?
LAUFMAN: Well, I'd like to think that the documents that present a risk to national security are already safely back in the government's hands. It is beyond stunning that back in January, the National Archives received highly classified documents - not just documents classified at the top secret, not just documents that are sensitive compartmented information, but also special access program materials, which are among the very most restricted types of classified materials because they implicate very sensitive collection platforms.
MARTINEZ: So with Donald Trump considering another presidential run, how would the DOJ weigh its next steps possibly?
LAUFMAN: You know, I think they have made clear they are conducting a criminal investigation. They have told the court, the magistrate, they are conducting a criminal investigation. I think they are committed to seeing it through. And so what's probably happening now is that they are continuing a classification review of all the classified documents that were recovered. There is a damage assessment taking place. That's what the government has indicated. These are all standard procedures in an investigation involving the willful retention of classified materials in an unauthorized location, which is prohibited by Section 793 of the Espionage Act.
MARTINEZ: That letter written by the National Archives to Trump's legal team back in May that's now become public, what's the significance of that?
LAUFMAN: Well, the significance is that they indicated that there were over 100 documents that they had received that were marked classified, over 700 pages, including special access program material and top-secret code word information. But the other thing that is kind of stunning about this is that it took almost a year. The government tried to resolve this problem consensually with Mr. Trump and his representatives for more than a year until the first grand jury subpoena was issued in May of 2022. So contrary to Mr. Trump's narrative that the government is some kind of a bull in a china shop, they could not have more gradually and through accommodation efforts tried to resolve this consensually before they had to resort to compulsory process, through grand jury subpoena or ultimately a search warrant.
MARTINEZ: David, quickly, was their process too gradual, too respectful?
LAUFMAN: Well, you know, it's hard to have visibility into what was happening in the background. I could understand why they would want to err in an abundance of caution and giving the former president every opportunity to resolve this shy of compulsory process. But we are where we are now, and I think they're going to see it through.
MARTINEZ: That's David Laufman, attorney who used to lead the Justice Department's counterintelligence section. David, thank you.
LAUFMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.