A federal appeals court on Wednesday granted the Department of Justice (DOJ) permission to regain access to around 100 documents marked classified seized by the FBI from former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate last month.
Judges Robin Rosenbaum, Britt Grant, and Andrew Brasher of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit unanimously agreed the lower court “likely erred” in its order, which blocked the U.S. government’s use of the documents marked classified in its criminal investigation and required a special master to review the documents.
The judges also said there’s “no evidence” that’s been presented that Trump declassified the documents when they were removed from the Oval Office, which Trump has said he did.
The government is trying to shield the documents marked classified from Trump’s lawyers, who say they “absolutely” need to see them to address issues surrounding Trump’s lawsuit against the government. Over 11,000 non-classified documents were also seized from Mar-a-Lago in the raid.
In a 29-page ruling, the judges determined that none of the “roughly one-hundred classified documents at issue” fall under Trump’s claim of having “individual interest” in them or need for their return.
“And the district court made no mention in its analysis of this factor as to why or how [Trump] might have an individual interest in or need for the classified documents,” the judges wrote.
“For our part, we cannot discern why [Trump] would have an individual interest in or need for any of the one-hundred documents with classification markings.”
The judges explained that any classified documents are “owned by, produced by or for,” or are “under the control” of the U.S. government and include information that could cause damage to national security if disclosed.
Only those who “need-to-know” the information they contain may have access to such documents, which they said include former presidents, unless the current administration waives that requirement.
Trump Maintains Documents Declassified, Judges Say ‘No Evidence’
Trump has maintained that he declassified the documents under standing orders before they were removed from the Oval Office.
In an interview with Fox News on Wednesday night, Trump said that, as president, he could declassify the documents at his discretion.
“If you’re the president of the United States, you can declassify just by saying, ‘it’s declassified.’ Even by thinking about it,” he said.
“You’re the president. You make that decision,” he added.
Trump also noted that his lawyers “don’t know what” the FBI found when it raided Mar-a-Lago because they weren’t allowed inside to supervise.
“We’re not dealing with a lot of trust here and the public isn’t either. The American public is really angry about this,” Trump added.
But the three-judge panel called Trump’s argument a “red-herring,” saying that declassifying the documents wouldn’t mean the former president has a personal interest in them.
“[Trump] has not even attempted to show that he has a need to know the information contained in the classified documents. Nor has he established that the current administration has waived that requirement for these documents,” the judges wrote.
“And even if he had, that, in and of itself, would not explain why [Trump] has an individual interest in the classified documents.”
The judges also said there’s “no evidence” Trump declassified the roughly 100 documents at issue, and noted that Trump has “resisted providing any evidence” that he had done so.
“In any event, at least for these purposes, the declassification argument is a red herring because declassifying an official document would not change its content or render it personal,” the judges wrote.
“So even if we assumed that [Trump] did declassify some or all of the documents, that would not explain why he has a personal interest in them.”
The appeals court judges said they “cannot conclude that [Trump] would be irreparably injured” by a stay of the documents marked classified.
They expressed doubt about Trump’s claim that he may be harmed by the disclosure of any “sensitive information,” saying that allowing the government to retain those documents doesn’t mean they will be released. Any improper disclosures, they added, would risk criminal liability.
The appeals court’s ruling comes after the DOJ asked for the partial stay of U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon’s order, which, in addition to appointing U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie as special master, cut off the DOJ’s criminal investigation into the classified documents.
Cannon’s ruling crippled the government’s efforts to determine any “possible unauthorized disclosures” of top secret or classified materials that posed a national security risk, the DOJ argued in court filings.
Trump and other Republicans have accused the FBI of targeting him for political reasons as he mulls running for president again in 2024.
Caden Pearson is a reporter based in Australia. Contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org