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Mar-a-Lago special master formally dismissed

Dec. 8, 2022 Updated Thu., Dec. 8, 2022 at 4:37 p.m.

In this aerial view, former U.S. President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate is seen on Sept. 14, 2022, in Palm Beach, Fla.  (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
In this aerial view, former U.S. President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate is seen on Sept. 14, 2022, in Palm Beach, Fla. (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
By Perry Stein Washington Post

A federal appeals court in Atlanta on Thursday formally ended the outside examination of materials seized by the FBI from Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property, a week after a three-judge panel overturned the lower-court ruling authorizing the review.

Judge Aileen M. Cannon, a federal judge in Florida, granted Trump’s request in September to appoint the outside arbiter‚ known as a special master. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled last week that she erred in making that decision.

Trump could have appealed that 11th Circuit ruling to the Supreme Court but is not expected to do so. The order filed Thursday allows the government to again use all of the seized materials as part of its criminal investigation of whether Trump mishandled classified documents, obstructed an investigation or destroyed government property.

The government had regained access to the classified material seized from Mar-a-Lago as a result of an earlier appeal, but prosecutors had been barred from using the nonclassified materials until the special master had completed the review.

This dismissal closes a protracted legal saga around the appointment of the special master, with the case pinging through the appeals courts as the Justice Department attempted to shut down what its representatives argued was an “intrusion” into the criminal investigation of the alleged mishandling of sensitive government documents after Trump left the White House.

The panel of three appeals court judges seemed to agree with the Justice Department in the Dec. 1 ruling and said appointing a special master in a criminal case such as this would set a troubling precedent. They wrote that they could not issue an order that “allows any subject of a search warrant to block government investigations after the execution of the warrant.”

Trump had appointed two of the three judges on the panel to the appeals court. The third judge, William H. Pryor, was nominated to the bench by President George W. Bush, and Trump had considered him for a Supreme Court appointment while he was in the White House.

Trump sought the outside arbiter after the FBI executed a court-approved search of Mar-a-Lago, his Florida home and private club, on Aug. 8, retrieving more than 13,000 documents related to Trump’s time in the White House. About 100 of the documents were marked as classified, and some contained extremely sensitive government secrets, according to court records.

The former president’s legal team had wanted the special master to determine whether Trump could claim any privileges over the legal documents so that they could be shielded from criminal investigators.

Cannon had appointed Judge Raymond J. Dearie of Brooklyn as special master. His review was expected to conclude in December. He has not made any recommendations to Cannon about whether any documents should be shielded from criminal investigators. During public hearings, he expressed skepticism that Trump could claim privileges over large swaths of the documents.

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