Special Master Forces Trump’s Hand in His First Mar-a-Lago Ruling

Brandon Bell/Getty
Brandon Bell/Getty

The judge appointed to review the documents seized by the FBI in the bureau’s court-authorized search of Mar-a-Lago last month is demanding Donald Trump back up the wild claims he’s made on social media—or stop wasting everyone’s time.

On Thursday, Special Master Raymond Dearie, a Reagan appointee who was handpicked by Trump and his lawyers, set out a case management plan laying down the ground rules and a timetable.

Trump has put forth various conflicting excuses for why federal agents found hundreds of documents marked classified in a storage room at the Palm Beach resort where he now resides. He’s said they were planted by the FBI. He’s said he was just bringing work home, like all presidents do. He’s said he declassified them under a “standing order” that no one else from his administration seems to remember. He’s said the documents were covered by attorney-client privilege, and also that he had a right to them under the executive privilege he held while in office.

But Dearie isn’t having it. The plan he handed down Thursday insists on answers from Team Trump about the spurious claims they continue to float. On Wednesday evening, Trump added another one, telling Fox News pundit Sean Hannity that a U.S. president can declassify top secret material simply “by thinking about it.”

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Dearie ordered Trump’s side to submit by Sept. 30 “a declaration or affidavit that includes each of the following factual matters: A list of any specific items set forth in the Detailed Property Inventory that Plaintiff asserts were not seized from the Premises on August 8, 2022,” asking for proof of Trump’s claims that the incriminating evidence found at Mar-a-Lago was part of an FBI frame job.

Dearie also ordered Trump’s counsel to submit a detailed list of any errors the former president claims were included in the FBI’s property inventory from the search, as to precisely where “specific items” were found, as well as an accounting of anything Trump claims was seized but not listed on the receipt.

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The order requires the two sides to hire a vendor by Friday, who will convert the seized materials into a digital format. By Monday, Trump’s attorneys “shall provide the Special Master and the government with an annotated copy of [a] spreadsheet” that lays out, document-by-document, which, if any, are covered by attorney-client communication privilege, attorney work product privilege, and various forms of executive privilege.

“Plaintiff’s designations shall be on a document-by-document basis,” Dearie’s order states. “For any document that Plaintiff designates as privileged and/or personal, Plaintiff shall include a brief statement explaining the basis for the designation.”

But Trump is no longer president, and the idea of a former commander-in-chief asserting executive privilege is something that has never before been fully tested in court. (Trump has a “very weak argument” on this front, law professor Heidi Kitrosser told Reuters.)

Dearie has also appointed an assistant, James Orenstein, to help him with the monumental task at hand.

A former magistrate judge in the Eastern District of New York, where Dearie served as U.S. Attorney and sat on the federal bench, Orenstein will earn $500 an hour for his service. The bill, Dearie ordered, will be paid monthly—by Donald Trump.

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