A US appeals court has allowed the Department of Justice to continue investigating classified documents seized during the search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence, in a victory for legal authorities in their legal tussle with the former president.
The appeals court for the 11th circuit on Wednesday granted the justice department’s request to halt an order handed down by a district judge that stopped authorities from examining the documents and ordered they be handed over to a third-party examiner.
The order marked a significant win for the DoJ after recent setbacks in its fraught legal battle with Trump. Aileen Cannon, the Trump-appointed judge in Florida’s southern district, approved the former president’s request this month for a “special master” to review material seized by the FBI, which would slow the government’s investigation into whether he mishandled the documents.
During last month’s search, agents seized thousands of files, of which 103 had classified markings, including 54 labelled secret and 18 were top secret.
The DoJ had pushed back against the decision to suspend the probe while an independent monitor assessed whether some material was subject to executive or attorney-client privilege, and should therefore be excluded from the investigation.
Authorities — who had completed their own review, saying only a small portion of documents should be excluded — filed an appeal against Cannon’s decision.
In the order handed down on Wednesday, which Trump can challenge, a panel of three judges strongly disagreed with some arguments the former president put forth in the case.
In response to Trump’s contention that he may have declassified the files while he was president, the court said the record contained no such evidence, which he “resisted providing” before the special master.
The ruling also addressed Trump’s reasoning that he may be harmed by the release of sensitive information, saying that allowing authorities to “retain the documents does not suggest that they will be released”.
The court also doubted that Trump would be damaged by the disclosure of privileged information, given he had not “asserted attorney-client privilege over any of the classified documents”.
The judges instead wrote that the US would “suffer irreparable harm” if the government was unable to access the classified documents and was required to hand them over to the special master.
The panel added there was strong public interest “in ensuring that the storage of the classified records did not result in ‘exceptionally grave damage to the national security’”, for which a review of the files was necessary.
The DoJ and a lawyer representing Trump did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The order came on a legally bruising day for Trump, just hours after New York state attorney-general Letitia James sued him and three of his adult children for allegedly committing fraud to inflate the value of assets held by the Trump Organization, their family business. James is seeking to have the Trumps repay at least $250mn in what she claims were proceeds that were acquired illegally.
A Trump Organization spokesperson on Wednesday called the action “political harassment”.