Trump and US prosecutors clash again over the status of seized files

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By Sarah N. Lynch and Jacqueline Thomsen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The US Justice Department charged Donald Trump’s lawyers in a lawsuit that went unsealed on Monday with “spelling skills” for alleging that some of the documents seized by the FBI from the Trump’s estate former president in Florida, should be kept out of a criminal investigation because they are “personal” or privileged.

Trump, who may announce a 2024 presidential candidacy on Tuesday, has been fighting over material seized by FBI agents during a court-approved Aug. 8 search of his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach away of investigators in their criminal investigation into sensitive government data taken when he left office last year.

The recently unsealed filings by the Justice Department and Trump’s lawyers were filed with U.S. Judge Raymond Dearie, an independent arbitrator appointed to review the seized documents to consider whether they should be shielded from investigators.

The department’s filing said Trump claims privileges over 122 documents seized during the federal raid. Prosecutors wrote that then they would have to gain access to nearly 2,800 other documents that they cannot currently review as part of their investigation.

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Federal law allows a president to retain personal information after leaving office, but it cannot be related to official work.

Trump’s lawyers argued in their filing that he can unilaterally determine that documents are personal, that he does not have to provide proof that he made that decision, and that the decision cannot be challenged. The Justice Department wrote in separate filings that Trump cannot claim government documents are his personal papers “simply by saying so” or “simply by removing them from the White House.”

The filings, released with some parts obscured, were initially sealed last Tuesday. The redacted court documents do not reveal exactly which documents Trump claims as personal. The Justice Department has said about 100 pages of the approximately 11,000 files seized have been marked as classified, and other court documents show government files were mixed with items such as media clippings.

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If Dearie, a so-called special master assigned to conduct a review of items taken during the search, decides the papers are not personal, Trump’s lawyers said Dearie should instead determine that she fall under executive privilege – and still have to keep them away from researchers. That doctrine allows a president to keep certain documents or information secret.

The department said Trump cannot exercise executive privilege over documents he has claimed as personal data because such data should not be related to official duties.

“The Special Master must not indulge in such games,” the prosecutors wrote.

Prosecutors are investigating whether Trump violated federal law by seizing the records and also whether he obstructed the investigation of the missing papers.

Two weeks after the search, Trump filed a civil lawsuit in an effort to delay the investigation and preserve some investigators’ records by asking a judge to appoint a special master to assess whether anyone should be considered privileged. U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee, named Dearie to the role.

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Trump has stated on social media, without providing evidence, that he has released all documents and that the FBI may have planted evidence. Trump’s lawyers have made no such arguments in official court cases.

The Justice Department is appealing Cannon’s decision to appoint a special master, telling the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that she exceeded her jurisdiction and that her ruling harmed the investigation. Trump’s legal team filed papers on Thursday claiming that Dearie’s assessment should move forward.

Cannon initially banned the department from using any seized documents for its criminal investigation until Dearie’s review is complete. The 11th Circuit subsequently reversed part of Cannon’s order, ruling that she had made a mistake in blocking the department’s access to the classified material for its investigation.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Jacqueline Thomsen in Washington; editing by Will Dunham and Alistair Bell)