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Trump, US government lock horns in court over seized secret files

Prosecutors say few materials taken during Mar-a-Lago search ‘contain attorney-client privileged info’; ex-president’s lawyer likens controversy to fuss over ‘overdue library book’

An photo contained in a court filing by the Department of Justice on August 30, 2022, shows documents seized during the August 8 search by the FBI of former president Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. (Department of Justice via AP)
An photo contained in a court filing by the Department of Justice on August 30, 2022, shows documents seized during the August 8 search by the FBI of former president Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. (Department of Justice via AP)

WEST PALM BEACH, Florida (AFP) — An increasingly high-stakes standoff between Donald Trump and US federal investigators landed in court Thursday, after days of headline-grabbing revelations surrounding highly classified documents seized by the FBI from the former president’s Florida home.

Trump is asking that an outside party be named to reassess the government’s screening of the sensitive documents to determine if any were protected by government secrecy protocols or were “highly personal information” that should be returned.

A federal court in Florida said Thursday it would issue a ruling at an unspecified future time on the request, which has significantly upped the ante in the case, prompting a searing response by the Justice Department.

Prosecutors on Tuesday disclosed much of the evidence against the Republican former president recovered from the search of his Mar-a-Lago residence in south Florida last month.

The officials said they had evidence of efforts to hide classified documents despite a grand jury demand in May that Trump produce records removed from the White House in January 2021.

Some of the files were so sensitive, they noted, that federal agents and Justice Department personnel needed their security clearances elevated to even look at the material.

Then-US President Donald Trump speaks to the press outside the grand ballroom as he arrives for a New Year’s celebration at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, on December 31, 2019. (Jim Watson/AFP)

The government filing also stated that FBI agents located classified documents in Trump’s desk drawers with his passports.

“The location of the passports is relevant evidence in an investigation of unauthorized retention and mishandling of national defense information,” the department said.

The filing provided the most detailed account yet of an 18-month effort to recover hundreds of classified files that were improperly taken to Mar-a-Lago when Trump left office.

And the claim of obstructing the FBI search heaps further legal pressure on the former president, who denies all wrongdoing.

‘Overdue library book’

In court on Thursday, one of Trump’s lawyers described the controversy as comparable to a fuss over an “overdue library book,” according to US media outlets.

The tycoon’s legal team said an independent review of the files would increase trust in the investigation and “lower the temperature” in the nation, according to CNN.

Prosecutors say, however, that investigators have already finished sifting through the records and identified “a limited set of materials that potentially contain attorney-client privileged information,” according to The Guardian newspaper.

Trump’s latest legal filing on Wednesday didn’t address the most damaging aspects of the government’s potential obstruction case and did not claim that he declassified the documents while he was in office, as he has claimed outside of court.

This is an aerial view of President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, August 10, 2022, in Palm Beach, Florida. (AP/Steve Helber)

US District Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee, may scrutinize the certification that his lawyers delivered to the Justice Department on June 3, falsely stating that all files with classified markings had been returned.

Trump appeared to admit Wednesday in a posting on his online platform Truth Social that he knew sensitive documents were contained in boxes at Mar-a-Lago at the time of the FBI’s August 8 search.

His legal team says the raid was unnecessary and occurred in “the midst of the standard give-and-take” between Trump and the National Archives about the material he was allowed to take with him.

The Justice Department “gratuitously” made public information including a photograph of classified documents seized from the residence, the former president’s lawyers argue.

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