WEST PALM BEACH, Fla., Aug 18 (Reuters) – A U.S. judge on Thursday said he is leaning toward releasing some of the evidence presented by the U.S. Justice Department to justify its search of Donald Trump’s Florida home last week, in a case pitting news organizations against federal prosecutors.
Despite objections by the Justice Department, U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart said he believes “there are portions of the affidavit that could be unsealed,” referring to the sworn statement laying out the evidence for why there was probable cause to search Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.
He ordered the Justice Department to file a redacted version of the affidavit under seal by noon next Thursday, but said prosecutors will be given the opportunity to appeal if they don’t agree with his proposed version.
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Reinhart’s order seemed to mark a victory for news outlets, who appeared in federal court in West Palm Beach on Thursday to persuade the judge that the public interest in the affidavit outweighs the benefits of keeping it sealed.
The search marked a significant escalation in one of the many federal and state investigations Trump is facing from his time in office and in private business. The Republican former president has suggested he might run for the White House again in 2024, but has not made any commitment.
The Justice Department opposes the release of the Mar-a-Lago affidavit, even in redacted form.
Jay Bratt, the head of the department’s counterintelligence and export control section, told the judge on Thursday that releasing the affidavit is not in the public interest because it could harm the ongoing probe, which he described as still being in the “early” stages and involving highly sensitive grand jury material.
“There is another public interest at stake and that is the public interest that criminal investigations are able to go forward unimpeded,” he said.
The search, which was approved by Reinhart on Aug. 5, is part of a federal investigation into whether Trump illegally removed documents when he left office in January 2021 after losing the presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden.
The Justice Department is investigating violations of three laws, including a provision in the Espionage Act that prohibits the possession of national defense information and another statute that makes it a crime to knowingly destroy, conceal or falsify records with the intent to obstruct an investigation.
Attorneys for several media outlets including The New York Times, the publisher of the Wall Street Journal, ABC News and NBC News told Reinhart on Thursday that the public’s right to know and the historic significance of the search outweigh any arguments to keep the records sealed.
“The public could not have a more compelling interest in ensuring maximum transparency over this event,” said Charles Tobin, one of the attorneys arguing for the media companies.
Trump has vocally made statements on social media calling on
the court to unseal the unredacted version.