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Appeals court allows review of Mar-a-Lago classified documents

Opinion cuts down a judge's reason for blocking the Justice Department's use of the documents, as well as some Trump arguments

Mar-a-Lago is seen in August, a week after the FBI raided the home of former President Trump, in Palm Beach, Fla.
Mar-a-Lago is seen in August, a week after the FBI raided the home of former President Trump, in Palm Beach, Fla. (Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A federal appellate court on Wednesday allowed the Justice Department to use classified documents seized in the search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club last month, reversing a lower court judge who sided with the former president.

The ruling from a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit found U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon likely erred when she ordered that the DOJ could not continue its criminal probe of Trump using the 100 or so classified documents found in the search.

The ruling succinctly cuts down some claims from the former president, particularly a suggestion he had any personal interest in classified documents or that he had declassified them as president. And the opinion concludes Cannon — who Trump appointed to the job — likely had abused her discretion.

The panel found it “self-evident” that the public interest favored a government investigation into the national security risks from the documents found in the search.

“An injunction delaying (or perhaps preventing) the United States’s criminal investigation from using classified materials risks imposing real and significant harm on the United States and the public,” the ruling said.

The 11th Circuit opinion was on a Justice Department request to lift part of Cannon’s ruling while it appeals. The three-judge panel was comprised of two Trump appointees, Britt Grant and Andrew Brasher, and an Obama appointee, Robin Rosenbaum.

The ruling covers a small portion of the thousands of documents seized during last month’s search of the former president’s private club and residence in Florida. Earlier this month, Cannon ruled that the government had to stop its criminal investigation into the former president until a special master could review all the documents in the case for privilege issues.

Last week the government requested a partial stay of Cannon’s order for the documents marked as classified, which Cannon denied.

The government then went to the 11th Circuit, and the panel unanimously agreed with the DOJ, finding that Cannon likely overstepped her bounds in siding with Trump. That is in part because Cannon never mentioned “why or how Plaintiff might have an individual interest in or need for the classified documents.”

The 11th Circuit panel wrote that classified documents are under the control of the U.S. government and included information that could cause identifiable damage to national security if disclosed.

“Plaintiff has not even attempted to show that he has a need to know the information contained in the classified documents,” the appeals court wrote.

The ruling also rejected Trump’s arguments about his ability to declassify documents as a “red herring.” Trump’s attorneys argued both before Cannon and special master Judge Raymond Dearie that he had broad authority to declassify documents, but did not present any evidence he had done so.

At least for this opinion, “the declassification argument is a red herring because declassifying an official document would not change its content or render it personal,” the court wrote. “So even if we assumed that Plaintiff did declassify some or all of the documents, that would not explain why he has a personal interest in them.”

The ruling would potentially take the classified documents out of the purview of Dearie, whom Cannon appointed as a special master to review the documents seized last month. Dearie himself expressed some skepticism about reviewing the classified documents at a hearing Tuesday.

The Trump suit came weeks after the rare search of a former president’s residence last month. Investigators said that after a dispute over the former president’s documents lasted more than a year, they received information that Trump kept classified documents at Mar-a-Lago.

Documents from the search released by a judge afterward showed investigators found 11 sets of documents marked with some form of classification and the DOJ was investigating the former president for espionage violations.

The court also succinctly cut down Trump’s argument that he might be harmed by the disclosure of sensitive information in the documents taken from Mar-a-Lago.

“But permitting the United States to retain the documents does not suggest that they will be released; indeed, a purpose of the United States’s efforts in investigating the recovered classified documents is to limit unauthorized disclosure of the information they contain,” the appeals court wrote.

“Not only that, but any authorized official who makes an improper disclosure risks her own criminal liability,” the court wrote.

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