Appeals court lifts hold on records found at Trump's Mar-a-Lago home

A federal appeals court on Wednesday granted a significant win to the Justice Department in its investigation of highly sensitive documents found at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, issuing a partial stay on a lower court’s ruling that froze key aspects of the case.

The three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously stayed the portion of a much-criticized prior ruling by Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee, that had prevented the government from scrutinizing the material gathered at Trump’s Florida residence and country club pending review from an independent special master.

“We decide only the narrow question presented: whether the United States has established that it is entitled to a stay of the district court’s order, to the extent that it (1) requires the government to submit for the special master's review the documents with classification markings and (2) enjoins the United States from using that subset of documents in a criminal investigation. We conclude that it has.”

The ruling was a rebuke to the claims made by Trump’s legal team about the former president’s supposed right to hold on to classified documents, some of which had confidential, secret and top secret markings.

“[Trump] has not even attempted to show that he has a need to know the information contained in the classified documents,” the panel ruled. “Nor has he established that the current administration has waived that requirement for these documents.”

Two of the appeals judges who issued the ruling, Andrew Brasher and Britt Grant, were appointed by Trump. Robin Rosenbaum, the third, was an appointee of President Barack Obama.

A redacted FBI photograph of documents and classified cover sheets
A redacted FBI photograph of documents and classified cover sheets recovered from a container stored in Trump's Florida estate, and which was included in a Department of Justice filing. (Department of Justice/Handout via Reuters) (Handout . / reuters)

The victory for the Justice Department means that their investigation of the classified documents can now push forward without waiting for a final recommendation from Judge Raymond Dearie, the special master appointed by Cannon to adjudicate the dispute over whether some of the documents may be protected by executive privilege or attorney-client privilege.

On Tuesday, Dearie also made clear that he was unsympathetic to Trump’s frequent assertions that he had previously declassified the documents that turned up at Mar-a-Lago when the FBI executed a search warrant at the property. Saying that Trump's lawyers presented no evidence at a Tuesday hearing that Trump had actually done so, Dearie signaled that the defense had fallen flat.

“As far as I’m concerned, that’s the end of it,” he said, adding, “You can’t have your cake and eat it.”

Trump's legal troubles have continued to mount this week. In addition to the partial stay issued Wednesday, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced that she was suing Trump and three of his adult children for $250 million as the result of a civil investigation into the Trump Organization’s business dealings prior to his ascendency to the presidency.

“I am announcing today that we are filing a lawsuit against Donald Trump for violating the law as part of his efforts to generate profits for himself, his family and his company,” James said. “The complaint demonstrates that Donald Trump falsely inflated his net worth by billions of dollars to unjustly enrich himself and to cheat the system, thereby cheating all of us.”