Judge May Release Affidavit in Trump Search, but Only After Redaction

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A federal judge ordered the government on Thursday to propose redactions to the highly sensitive affidavit that was used to justify a search warrant executed by the F.B.I. last week at former President Donald J. Trump’s private home and club, saying he was inclined to unseal parts of it.

Ruling from the bench, the judge, Bruce E. Reinhart, said it was “very important” that the public have as “much information” as it can about the historic search at Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s Florida residence, noting that there were portions of the affidavit that “could be presumptively unsealed.”

“Whether those portions would be meaningful for the public or the media,” Judge Reinhart added, was not for him to decide. He acknowledged that the redaction process can often be extensive and effectively turn documents into “meaningless gibberish.”

Judge Reinhart’s decision appeared to strike a middle course between the Justice Department, which had wanted to keep the affidavit entirely under wraps as its investigation into Mr. Trump’s handling of classified documents continued, and a group of news organizations, which requested that it be released in full to the public.

Warrant affidavits — which are written and sworn to by federal agents before searches take place — contain detailed information about criminal investigations and are almost always kept under seal until charges are filed.

As part of his ruling, Judge Reinhart ordered the government to send him under seal proposed redactions to the warrant affidavit by next Thursday at noon. He said he would review the suggestions and decide if he agreed with them. But he did not set a specific date for the affidavit to be released.

“This is going to be a considered, careful process,” Judge Reinhart said.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to Judge Reinhart’s ruling, but privately, officials said they were shocked by the decision.

The hearing, in Federal District Court for the Southern District of Florida, emerged from an effort last week by a coalition of news organizations to unseal the affidavit — a document that should disclose the contours of the broader investigation into Mr. Trump’s handling of the sensitive files — chief among them, what led prosecutors to believe there was probable cause that evidence of a crime existed at Mar-a-Lago. Among the news organizations making the request were The New York Times, The Washington Post and Dow Jones & Company.

It is unlikely, however, that any critical details of the inquiry, including issues related to probable cause or the identities of witnesses who were interviewed by prosecutors will make it into the redacted version of the affidavit.

At the request of the Justice Department, Judge Reinhart has already unsealed the warrant itself and two attachments to it. Those documents revealed, among other things, that prosecutors have been looking into whether Mr. Trump violated the Espionage Act, mishandled government records and obstructed justice by removing boxes of material from the White House at the end of his tenure.

More Coverage of the F.B.I. Search of Trump’s Home

  • Trump-F.B.I. Conflict: The Mar-a-Lago search was a dramatic moment after years of tumult between Mr. Trump and the nation’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
  • Shifting Explanations: Mr. Trump and his allies have given often conflicting defenses of his retention of classified documents without addressing why he had kept them.
  • Trump’s Reaction: In the wake of the search, Mr. Trump has accused the nation’s justice system of being exactly what he tried to turn it into: a political weapon for a president.
  • Pence Speaks Out: In response to Republican outrage over the F.B.I.’s search, the former vice president called on members of his party to stop attacking the nation’s top law enforcement agencies.

Outside the courthouse in downtown West Palm Beach, news media vans and cameras lined the street, prompting a passer-by to remark that someone famous must be inside. More than three dozen reporters filed into the courtroom, wearing face masks at the court’s request. A few curious members of the public also attended.

Before the proceeding began in earnest, Judge Reinhart unsealed a few more ancillary documents connected to the warrant affidavit that all of the parties had agreed to release. They included a redacted copy of the warrant application, the original order to seal the warrant and the government’s request to seal the warrant.

A top Justice Department lawyer began the arguments in front of Judge Reinhart by admitting that the search of Mar-a-Lago had attracted “heightened public interest,” but he still opposed the request to unseal the affidavit, saying it was a “very detailed and reasonably lengthy” document that would provide a guide to the department’s continuing inquiry of Mr. Trump.

The lawyer, Jay Bratt, the chief of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence and export control section, which has led the investigation from the outset, noted that if the affidavit were publicly available, it could reveal the government’s next investigative steps and jeopardize the safety of its witnesses at a moment when the search of Mar-a-Lago had resulted in multiple threats against federal agents and others.

On social media, Mr. Trump has called for the affidavit that was used to justify a search by the F.B.I. to be released.Credit…Jamie Kelter Davis for The New York Times

“This is a volatile situation with respect to this particular search across the political spectrum but certainly on one side in particular,” Mr. Bratt said. “There is a real concern not just for the safety of these witnesses but to chill other witnesses who may come forward and cooperate.”

In court papers filed on Monday, prosecutors said much the same, stridently objecting to the affidavit being made public and arguing that it offered a “road map” to their inquiry. In their papers, prosecutors also said that the release of the affidavit could harm “other high-profile investigations,” but did not specify which inquiries they were referring to.

Under questioning by Judge Reinhart, Mr. Bratt said that the department did not want to release even a redacted version of the affidavit, arguing that it could set a poor precedent for future cases.

“It is not a practice that we endorse and certainly would object to it very strongly,” he said.

Speaking for the news media coalition, a lawyer, Charles D. Tobin, said this was a “case of historic importance” and argued there was great public interest in understanding the underlying justification for the search.

“The raid on Mar-a-Lago by the F.B.I. is already one of the most significant law enforcement events in the nation’s history,” Mr. Tobin said, asking Judge Reinhart to provide “transparency” into the process.

“You are standing in for the public, your honor,” Mr. Tobin said at one point. “You are the gatekeeper.”

Although Mr. Trump himself has called on social media for the affidavit to be released — echoing similar demands made by congressional allies like Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina — his lawyers were conspicuously absent from the legal proceeding surrounding the unsealing process. At any time, Mr. Trump could have filed papers asking Judge Reinhart to make the affidavit public, but he chose not to.

Indeed, one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers, Christina Bobb, showed up at the courthouse for the hearing, but only as an observer, not a participant, she told reporters. Ms. Bobb confirmed that Mr. Trump’s legal team did not intend to get involved in the arguments about the warrant affidavit.

The search of Mar-a-Lago, on Aug. 8., ignited a firestorm of condemnation from right-wing figures in the news media and congressional Republicans, resulting in rallying cries to defund and destroy the F.B.I. and even warlike calls for violence. Three days after agents descended on Mar-a-Lago, an armed man apparently enraged by the search tried to breach the F.B.I.’s field office in Cincinnati and was shot to death after trading gunfire with the local police during a standoff.

Even Judge Reinhart himself had been dragged into the furor surrounding the search.

In the days after he signed the warrant, several threats — some of them antisemitic — were issued against him and his family on pro-Trump message boards, with one person writing, “I see a rope around his neck.”

Glenn Thrush contributed reporting.

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