- Associated Press
Thursday, August 18, 2022

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Justice Department‘s investigation into whether former President Donald Trump illegally stored classified records at his Florida estate – and potentially violated the Espionage Act – is still “in its early stages,” a top national security prosecutor said Thursday.

The revelation by Jay Bratt, a top national security prosecutor, was the clearest indication yet that the Justice Department is directly scrutinizing Trump’s conduct and is moving forward in its criminal investigation after the FBI seized classified and top secret information during a search at Mar-a-Lago last week.

The details about the investigation were laid out Thursday during a court hearing after several news organizations, including The Associated Press, asked a federal judge to make public the affidavit supporting the warrant that allowed FBI agents to search Trump’s Florida estate.

The government contends that releasing the information would compromise its investigation.

Unsealing the affidavit would provide a “road map” of the investigation — which is in its “early stages” — and would expose the next steps to be taken by federal agents and prosecutors, said Bratt, the chief of the Justice Department‘s counterintelligence and export control section.

He argued it was in the public interest for the investigation, including interviews of witnesses, to go forward unhindered.

As the hearing kicked off, a small caravan of vehicles with Trump flags drove past the federal courthouse in West Palm Beach, Florida. An attorney for Trump, Christina Bobb, was in the courthouse on Thursday but said she was only there to observe the court proceeding.

The media companies argue the affidavit’s release would help the public determine if the Justice Department had legitimate reasons for the search or if it was part of a Biden administration vendetta against Trump, as the former president and his backers contend. Trump, in a Truth Social post last week, called for the release of the unredacted affidavit in the interest of transparency.

“The matter is one of utmost public interest, involving the actions of current and former government officials,” wrote attorney Carol Jean LoCiero, who is representing the Times and others. “President Trump decried the search as an ‘assault that could only take place in Third World Countries,’ asserted agents ‘even broke into my safe,’ and otherwise challenged the validity of the search.”

U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart — the judge who authorized the warrant and presided over Thursday’s hearing — said in court that he was “inclined” not to seal the whole affidavit and told the Justice Department to submit a copy of the affidavit with proposed redactions for the information it wants to keep secret.

After the government submits that proposed version by next Thursday, the judge said he would review it and may meet lawyers for the government and give them a chance to make an argument for why specific information should be withheld.

Justice Department attorneys have argued in court filings that the investigation into Trump’s handling of “highly classified material” is ongoing and that the document contains sensitive information about witnesses.

A recent filing by Juan Antonio Gonzalez, the U.S. attorney in Miami, and Bratt, a top Justice Department national security official, says making the affidavit public would “cause significant and irreparable damage to this ongoing criminal investigation.”

“If disclosed, the affidavit would serve as a roadmap to the government’s ongoing investigation, providing specific details about its direction and likely course, in a manner that is highly likely to compromise future investigative steps,” they wrote.

FBI agents searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate on Aug. 8, removing 11 sets of classified documents, with some not only marked top secret but also “sensitive compartmented information,” according to a receipt of what was taken that was released Friday. That is a special category meant to protect the nation’s most important secrets that if revealed publicly could cause “exceptionally grave” damage to U.S. interests. The court records did not provide specific details about information the documents might contain.

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