11th Circuit finds for Justice Dept. on Mar-a-Lago Trump appeal

An appeals court sided with the Justice Department in a legal fight over classified documents seized in a court-authorized search of former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home, ruling Wednesday that the FBI may use the documents in its ongoing criminal investigation.

The decision by a three-judge panel of the appeals court marks a victory, at least temporarily, for the Justice Department in its legal battle with Trump over access to the evidence in a high-stakes investigation to determine if the former president or his advisers mishandled national security secrets, or hid or destroyed government records.

It was the second legal setback of the day for Trump, who was sued Wednesday morning by New York Attorney General Letitia James. The lawsuit said Trump and his company flagrantly manipulated property and other asset valuations to deceive lenders, insurance brokers and tax authorities to get better rates and lower tax liability.

In Wednesday night’s ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta found fault with Trump’s rationale that the classified documents seized on Aug. 8 might be his property, rather than the government’s. The appeals court also disagreed with the rationale used by U.S. District Judge Aileen M. Cannon in agreeing to have the classified documents reviewed by a special master to see if they should be shielded from investigators because of executive or attorney-client privilege.

“For our part, we cannot discern why [Trump] would have an individual interest in or need for any of the one-hundred documents with classification markings,” the court wrote, noting that the stay it issued is temporary and should not be considered a final decision on the merits of the case.

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The lower court “abused its discretion in exercising jurisdiction … as it concerns the classified documents,” the panel wrote in a 29-page opinion. Two judges on the panel were appointed by Trump; the third was appointed by President Barack Obama.

A Trump spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The panel found particularly unpersuasive the repeated suggestions by Trump’s legal team that he may have declassified the documents — citing an appearance by Trump’s attorneys on Tuesday before special master Raymond Dearie, who pressed them to say whether the former president had acted to declassify the materials in question.

“Plaintiff suggests that he may have declassified these documents when he was President. 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,” the panel wrote. “In any event, at least for these purposes, the declassification argument is a red herring because declassifying an official document would not change its content or render it personal.”

Last week, the Justice Department filed papers asking the appeals court to quickly assess part of Cannon’s decision in which she appointed a special master to review the seized documents.

Prosecutors have said that two parts of her order — allowing the special master to review the roughly 100 documents that were marked classified and halting the criminal investigation surrounding those documents while the special master conducts a review — jeopardize national security interests.

Cannon, a federal judge in Florida, appointed Dearie, a federal judge in New York City, to serve as special master and review the roughly 11,000 documents and items seized in the FBI’s search.

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The Justice Department had previously asked Cannon to reconsider those two elements of her order, but she declined in a written order that repeatedly expressed skepticism of the government’s claims about the case.

In particular, Cannon said that a risk…

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