Donald Trump is not entitled to have a special master review documents seized from his Mar-a-Lago home by federal investigators, a US appeals court has ruled, in the second big legal defeat for the former president in two weeks.
Judges at the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday said a lower court was wrong to appoint a special master shortly after the FBI’s search in August, at the request of Trump’s lawyers who had claimed the government’s warrant was unlawful.
“The law is clear,” the justices wrote in a 21-page opinion. “We cannot write a rule that allows any subject of a search warrant to block government investigations after the execution of the warrant. Nor can we write a rule that allows only former presidents to do so.”
Lawyers for Trump had tried to argue that some of the documents seized during a search of the former president’s home in August were covered by executive or attorney-client privilege. They also argued Trump had the authority to have declassified some of them as he left office.
The government argued it had every right to “review and use materials obtained in its judicially authorised search regardless of whether they are presidential or ‘personal’ records”.
But after hearing oral arguments last week, a panel consisting of William Pryor, who was appointed by former president George W Bush, and two Trump-appointed judges, Britt Grant and Andrew Brasher, comprehensively rebutted the Trump team’s assertions, calling them a “sideshow”.
They said the search was undertaken after a warrant was properly authorised “by a magistrate judge’s finding of probable cause” and following numerous attempts by the government to identify and retrieve the documents in question.
The search had uncovered more than 100 documents “marked confidential, secret, or top secret”, amid a trove of 13,000, they added.
The contention by the Trump legal team that a former president should be treated differently under the law would “violate bedrock separation-of-powers limitations”, the justices said.
The opinion from the 11th Circuit comes less than two weeks after the Supreme Court ruled that the US Treasury must hand over six years’ worth of Trump’s tax returns to a congressional committee investigating his conduct in office. The records were handed over earlier this week.
Trump, who announced in November that he would run for the White House again in 2024, faces numerous additional legal challenges, including a criminal tax fraud case against his companies that is drawing to a close in New York, and a civil case alleging financial fraud by him and his family.
A grand jury in Georgia is also examining whether the former president and those around him broke the law by attempting to overturn the state’s 2020 presidential election result.