Sep 20, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Trump's special master jam

Trump's legal team walking into courthouse

Trump's legal team walks into the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse. Photo: Alex Kent/Getty Images

The special master tapped to review the documents the FBI seized from Mar-a-Lago appeared deeply skeptical of the arguments put forth by former President Trump's legal team in an opening hearing Tuesday.

Why it matters: What initially looked like a legal victory for Trump — the appointment of a special master he requested, by a federal judge who stunned experts with her ruling — isn't panning out the way he had hoped.

Between the lines: As Axios first reported, lawyers and advisers to Trump believed Judge Raymond Dearie's role on the secretive FISA court — which approved controversial warrants used to surveil former Trump campaign aide Carter Page — made the judge a deep skeptic of the FBI.

  • Dearie's personal feelings remain unknown; what's not in dispute after today's hearing is that his seven years on the FISA court have given him a deep understanding of classification controls and the importance of the nation's secrets.
  • The Trump team's bet that Dearie would be slow-moving is also at risk of backfiring: The judge's draft plan for the document review envisions the "inspection and labeling process" being completed by Oct. 7 — less than three weeks away.
  • That could potentially keep the story in the headlines during a final election stretch that would typically see the Department of Justice go dark on politically sensitive investigations.

Driving the news: Dearie repeatedly pressed Trump's lawyers to provide proof for the former president's claims — made on social media, but never in court — that he declassified the documents long before they were seized from Mar-a-Lago.

  • "This is not a criminal case. The plaintiff has the burden of establishing his right to relief," Dearie told the courtroom, signaling early on that the Trump team would face an uphill climb.
  • While the DOJ has pointed to classification markings indicating the documents contained highly sensitive national security secrets, Trump's lawyers have refused to provide evidence of declassification.
  • They've argued that doing so could mean disclosing Trump's defense to a potential indictment down the road.

What they're saying: "As far as I'm concerned, that's the end of it," Dearie declared after asking Trump's team what they expect him to do. "My view is you can't have your cake and eat it too."

The bottom line: The special master delay and the debate over declassification have not changed the key facts — Trump, as his own lawyers conceded, is staring down the very real threat of an indictment.

Go deeper