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Federal judge creates a path for releasing redacted affidavit from Mar-a-Lago search

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A judge in Florida is signaling that he's inclined to make more information public about the FBI search of former President Trump's home.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah, the judge is giving the Justice Department one week, one week to propose redactions to the affidavit that was used to justify the search.

FADEL: We've got NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson with us. She's been following this story closely. Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So, Carrie, if the judge unseals the affidavit, that would be highly unusual. Usually the public doesn't get to see this while an investigation is underway. What's different about this case?

JOHNSON: This case involves the search of a home of a former president. That's apparently never happened before. And yesterday, one lawyer representing media groups says the public interest could not be greater in this case. The magistrate judge really seemed to agree. Judge Bruce Reinhart says he's inclined to release more information about the search, but he's giving the Justice Department until next Thursday to think about what details can be made public.

FADEL: Now, the Justice Department has objected to releasing this affidavit. What's the DOJ say it's worried about?

JOHNSON: It's worried about the safety of witnesses in this case and in other investigations. There have already been threats to FBI agents listed on some of the search warrant papers and threats to this judge. DOJ national security lawyer Jay Bratt told the judge in Florida, this investigation is in its early stages. He doesn't want to give anyone a roadmap into the prosecution strategy. And this case also involves government secrets, some highly classified material. We know the FBI collected about 11 sets of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago in the search last week. Some were labeled at that top-secret level and higher.

FADEL: OK, so how will the Justice Department go about making changes to this affidavit?

JOHNSON: Yeah, DOJ is going to get back to the drawing board in a room full of black pens to make some redactions to this search warrant affidavit. We might not see anything for a while, especially if the judge and the Justice Department disagree about the scope of those redactions. Even if we do get the document eventually, former prosecutors say it's probably going to offer minimal new information of the sort the public would be interested in. And, of course, meanwhile, the FBI is still sifting through all the boxes it took from Mar-a-Lago last week. That can take time as they figure out what's in those papers and try to confirm the classification levels of some of that material. At this stage, of course, it's not clear whether former President Trump or anyone else will be charged with a crime. Trump's posted on social media that he wants this affidavit to be released, but he's taken no action in court, only speaking online.

FADEL: So we'll wait at least a week, if not longer, for any word on the affidavit, which, based on what you're saying, might be a lot of blacked-out words versus words we can read. But some other documents related to the Mar-a-Lago search did emerge last night, right?

JOHNSON: Yeah. We got a few more minor documents. In one of them, prosecutors say they're looking at possible willful retention of defense information, concealment or removal of government documents and obstruction of a federal investigation. So those are the three laws the FBI thinks may have been violated. And in another new document, we can see that prosecutors initially asked to seal all these materials because the integrity of the ongoing investigation might be compromised or that evidence might be destroyed at Mar-a-Lago.

FADEL: The former president made a bunch of claims about why he had classified government records at Mar-a-Lago. How has he been defending himself?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Some of Trump's allies say the former president already declassified these materials, but there's no evidence of any paperwork backing up that claim.

FADEL: NPR's Carrie Johnson, thanks.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.