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Deadline looms for DOJ to submit a redacted affidavit on FBI's Mar-a-Lago search

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Justice Department faces a deadline today in federal court in Florida.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The government has to submit its proposed redaction to the affidavit used to get the warrant for searching former President Trump's Mar-a-Lago club and home.

MARTIN: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas joins us with more. Good morning, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So the affidavit would reveal the justification for the warrant that was used to search Mar-a-Lago. Is this going to come out today?

LUCAS: Well, that's unclear. It's unclear, actually, whether the public will see this affidavit at all at this point. What we do know is that by noon Eastern today, the Justice Department has to provide the court in Florida with its proposed redactions to this affidavit. The Justice Department doesn't want any of this affidavit made public. It wants to keep the whole thing sealed. It says that the document contains sensitive information about its ongoing criminal investigation, about government witnesses, about specific investigative steps. And they say that this affidavit is, in essence, a road map to their investigation and that releasing it could undermine that investigation.

So for all those reasons, the government says this affidavit should remain under seal. Media outlets are fighting in court to try to get it released. They say this case is of enormous public interest, and this investigation has already been made public because we all know about it.

MARTIN: Right. So this decision on whether this is released at all lies with the judge who approved the search warrant in the first place. Any clues as to which way he's leaning on this?

LUCAS: Right. The decision here is up to Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart. At a hearing last week, he ordered that the government propose its redactions to the affidavit, basically masking sensitive information. And some thought that that signaled that Reinhart was inclined to release at least a redacted version of the affidavit. But since then, in a written order, Reinhart acknowledged that it may be the case that partial redactions in this instance would be so extensive - think of, like, huge chunks of text blacked out - that the document would just become unintelligible, and releasing it in redacted form would be meaningless. For now, the Justice Department will give the judge its proposed redactions. He'll take a look and make a call. We do not know at this point, though, how long that will take.

MARTIN: OK, meanwhile, Ryan, as we've been waiting for this decision on this affidavit, more information has come out about an earlier search - right? - what the National Archives found at Mar-a-Lago earlier this year, and that includes highly classified documents, right?

LUCAS: That's right. That's right. This comes from a letter the National Archives sent to Trump's attorney, Evan Corcoran, in May. The archives made this letter public this week after a copy of it leaked. But in the letter, the archive stresses that it negotiated with Trump over the course of 2021 about getting presidential records back from Mar-a-Lago. It says that in the boxes that it recovered from the Florida property back in January of 2022, that there were more than 700 pages of classified documents in there. Some of those had the highest level of classification markings, including special access programs.

MARTIN: Why is that so notable, Ryan?

LUCAS: Well, these are some of the most highly guarded secrets in the U.S. government. One former intelligence official told me this is holy grail-type stuff of intelligence collection, things like CIA human intelligence reports, covert operations stuff. The former official said exposing special access program materials often can put actual lives in danger. The archives makes clear in its letter that the Justice Department and the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies were deeply concerned about the potential damage to national security from the mishandling of these things. This could also help explain why the Justice Department was so concerned when it learned that even more materials remained at Mar-a-Lago and why, ultimately, they decided to conduct a court-authorized search there.

MARTIN: NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.