The emergency intervention upends a trial judge’s order over those documents that had blocked federal investigators’ work on the documents, and is a strong rebuke of the Trump team’s attempt to suggest without evidence that materials were somehow declassified. Trump’s options to block the criminal investigation are now dimming with one of his only remaining possibilities being an emergency request to the Supreme Court.
The ruling was issued by a three-judge panel of the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals — two of whom were nominated by Trump.
Those records — which prosecutors have said contain highly sensitive national security information — are at the heart of the criminal investigation into the mishandling of federal records after the Trump presidency. Concern over them was a major factor that prompted the Justice Department and a court to authorize the unprecedented search of the former President’s home.
Altogether, the 29-page opinion was a major boost to the arguments the Justice Department has made throughout the dispute over the Mar-a-Lago documents, while undermining several claims that Trump had made about the materials the FBI seized.
“It is self-evident that the public has a strong interest in ensuring that the storage of the classified records did not result in ‘exceptionally grave damage to the national security,'” the three-judge panel stated. “Ascertaining that necessarily involves reviewing the documents, determining who had access to them and when, and deciding which (if any) sources or methods are compromised.”
In acknowledging what may be the biggest problem for Trump as the investigation continues, the appeals court noted that even former presidents shouldn’t have classified information without the federal government’s approval.
“For our part, we cannot discern why the Plaintiff would have an individual interest in or need for any of the one hundred documents with classification markings,” the appeals court wrote, noting that classified records are controlled by the current government and only should be shared on a need-to-know basis.
“This requirement pertains equally to former Presidents, unless the current administration, in its discretion, chooses to waive that requirement.”
Court rebukes Trump on declassified claims
Wednesday night, the appeals court panel called Trump’s legal team out.
“Plaintiff suggests that he may have declassified these documents when he was President,” the court wrote. “But the record contains no evidence that any of these records were declassified. And before the special master, Plaintiff resisted providing any evidence that he had declassified any of these documents.”
Trump’s lawyers had also sought to put off making any specific disclosures about whether the documents had been declassified while the special master initially reviews the materials.
The appeals court included an extensive takedown of the logic US District Judge Aileen Cannon put forward for ordering the special master review and for denying the DOJ’s request that the classified documents be exempted from it.
The panel dissected the rationale Cannon had presented to justify her intervention, saying she had put forward an “untenable” approach for letting an intelligence community assessment of the documents continue while the criminal probe into them was on pause. The government had “sufficiently explained how and why its national security review is inextricably intertwined with its criminal investigation” — a claim that Cannon had dismissed.
“The records’ classification markings establish that they are government records and that responsible officials previously determined that their unauthorized disclosure would cause damage — including ‘exceptionally grave damage’ — to the Nation’s security,” the prosecutors had told the 11th Circuit in a Tuesday night filing.
The Justice Department had asked for the 11th Circuit’s intervention in the Mar-a-Lago documents dispute after Trump successfully sued to obtain the appointment of a special master — an independent attorney — to pour through the roughly 11,000 documents the FBI had obtained in its search.
Cannon previously declined a Justice Department request that she pause the parts of her order that applied to the 100 documents identified as classified.
None of the three criminal statutes…