A federal judge in Florida on Thursday ordered the US department of justice (DoJ) to redact and prepare for possible release the affidavit used to justify the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s home, earlier this month.
The federal magistrate judge, Bruce Reinhart, made the announcement at a hearing in West Palm Beach.
The department opposed release of the affidavit. The judge said portions of it “could be presumptively unsealed”.
“I’m not prepared to find that the affidavit should be fully sealed,” the judge said, adding that he believed there were “portions” that could be released.
The judge asked the department to provide him proposals for a redacted version within seven days which he would then consider.
Classified papers taken from the White House were among those seized by federal agents during the August 8th search, which Mr Trump has claimed was an “unlawful break-in” at his private residence.
But while the US attorney general, Merrick Garland, approved the release of the warrant referencing the Espionage Act used to execute the search, his department objected to other key documents becoming public.
They include the affidavit detailing the FBI’s “probable cause” to seek the warrant, part of a criminal inquiry into Trump’s handling of classified materials after he left the White House last year.
The Republican former president is facing other legal woes, including multiple federal and state investigations into his efforts to overturn his 2020 election defeat by Joe Biden and the January 6th, 2021, Capitol riot.
“The affidavit would serve as a road map to the government’s ongoing investigation, providing specific details about its direction and likely course,” the department said in a court filing.
“Disclosure of the government’s affidavit at this stage would also likely chill future co-operation by witnesses.”
On Thursday, judge Reinhart, who signed the original search warrant, heard arguments from several media organisations asking him to unseal the documents in the public interest. Trump himself is not a party to the proceedings but has said he supports disclosure and has threatened to release his own CCTV images of FBI agents conducting the search.
One of Mr Trump’s attorneys, Christina Bobb, told reporters she was at the hearing as “an observer” and would not make arguments or filings.
“Before the events of this week, not since the Nixon administration had the federal government wielded its power to seize records from a former president in such a public fashion,” the media companies, including CNN, the Washington Post and NBC, said in a court filing.
“Tremendous public interest in these records in particular outweighs any purported interest in keeping them secret.”
Jay Bratt, a senior lawyer in the department of justice national security division, told the judge the inquiry into the documents was in its “early stages” and while he acknowledged the public interest in transparency, he said that there was “another public interest” in criminal investigations being able to go forward unhindered.
Unsealing the affidavit, he said, would reveal “investigative techniques and creates risk of obstruction and interference”.
In February, the US national archives confirmed that officials found classified materials in 15 boxes of documents Trump improperly removed from the White House in violation of the 1978 Presidential Records Act. It said it had recovered the boxes, and reported its findings to the justice department.
The Washington Post reported last week that FBI agents were looking for highly secret documents relating to nuclear weapons during the raid. In a rare public statement, Garland said he had personally authorised the decision to seek the warrant.
Trump, who is considering another presidential run in 2024, has sought to politicise the search of Mar-a-Lago, claiming without evidence that it is part of a wider conspiracy by Democrats to prevent him returning to the White House.
On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that the justice department sent a grand jury subpoena to the national archives in May for all the documents it had supplied to the January 6th House committee, further deepening Trump’s legal peril.
On Thursday, in federal court in New York, Allen Weisselberg, former chief executive officer of the Trump Organisation, pleaded guilty to 15 charges of tax fraud. Trump sat for a deposition in a parallel civil investigation in New York into allegations the company misled lenders and tax authorities about asset values and invoked his fifth-amendment protection against self-incrimination more than 400 times.
Additionally, the former president faces legal peril in Georgia, where a grand jury is investigating efforts to reverse Biden’s narrow win in the key swing state.