Former President Donald Trump.
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The DOJ asked a judge not to unseal the FBI affidavit underpinning the Mar-a-Lago raid.
DOJ counterintelligence official Jay Bratt said there’s a “real concern” for witnesses’ safety.
He also said releasing the affidavit could “chill” others from cooperating with the Trump investigation.
The Justice Department asked a judge Thursday not to unseal the FBI affidavit underpinning its Mar-a-Lago search warrant because its release could compromise the department’s investigation into former President Donald Trump’s handling of national security information.
The investigation is still in its “early stages,” DOJ counterintelligence official Jay Bratt argued in court, adding that there’s a “real concern” for witnesses’ safety. He also said unsealing the affidavit could expose sensitive grand jury information and “chill” other possible witnesses from coming forward and cooperating with prosecutors.
When Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart raised the possibility of releasing a redacted version of the document, Bratt said it would be impractical for the government to redact all the information it considers truly sensitive because “there would be nothing of substance” left.
Reinhart scheduled Thursday’s hearing after multiple media organizations called for the public release of all documents and records connected to the FBI’s unprecedented search of the former president’s Florida residence last week.
After hearing arguments for and against releasing the affidavit, the judge said he’s “inclined” to unseal parts of it. Reinhart ordered the DOJ to submit proposed redactions to the court by next Thursday, after which he’ll make a final ruling.
David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor from the Southern District of New York, told Insider that Reinhart’s decision was both “unusual and noteworthy” given that the investigation is in its preliminary stages and no charges have been filed.
“For many of the reasons outlined by DOJ” in court this afternoon, “releasing this type of information during an active investigation rarely happens,” he said.
However, the high profile nature of the case and the heightened public interest in the Mar-a-Lago search and its continued fallout could weigh in favor of a partial release of the affidavit, Weinstein added.
According to the search warrant, which was unsealed last week, the DOJ is investigating if Trump violated three federal laws, including the Espionage Act, related to his handling of national security information.
The related FBI affidavit could contain additional details about what documents the government has recovered, what the grand jury asked for and what’s been presented to it, witness testimony related to the nature of the documents, the results or contents of previous searches, and the overall size and scope of the department’s investigation.
Weinstein cautioned against expecting that a redacted version of the affidavit would reveal significant details about the DOJ’s inquiry.
But Andrew Weissmann, a former FBI general counsel who later worked on the special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, told MSNBC that it could still contain breadcrumbs about the direction of the DOJ’s investigation and key exchanges between Trump’s lawyers and department officials before the raid.
Those exchanges could demonstrate how the DOJ tried in good faith to get the records and exhausted other less intrusive measures before deciding to seek a search warrant.
The former president, for his part, wants Reinhart to release the affidavit even as his advisors warn that it could backfire on him, according to The Washington Post.
In the days since Mar-a-Lago was searched, Trump and his allies have accused the Justice Department and FBI of prosecutorial misconduct and political persecution.
Trump also called on Reinhart to recuse himself because he made previous political contributions to Democrats. Reinhart has donated to Republicans as well.
“There is no way to justify the unannounced RAID of Mar-a-Lago,” Trump posted on Truth Social earlier this week, before falsely claiming that it was a “horrible and shocking BREAK-IN.”