A federal judge heard arguments Thursday on whether to appoint an outside legal expert to review government records seized by the FBI last month in a search of former President Donald Trump's Florida home. There was no immediate ruling, but the judge had indicated last week that she was inclined to grant the request and asked Thursday, “What is the harm?” in such an appointment.
Lawyers for Trump say the appointment of a special master is necessary to ensure an independent inspection of the documents. This kind of review, they say, would allow for “highly personal information” such as diaries or journals to be separated from the investigation and returned to Trump, along with any other documents that may be protected by claims of attorney-client privilege or executive privilege.
Chris Kise, a Trump lawyer and former Florida solicitor general, told U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon that appointing a neutral party would restore public faith in the investigation.
“This is an unprecedented situation. We need to lower the temperature,” Kise said. “We need to take a deep breath.”
The Justice Department has said an appointment is unwarranted because investigators have completed their review of potentially privileged records and identified “a limited set of materials that potentially contain attorney-client privileged information.” The government also says Trump lacks legal grounds to demand the return of presidential documents because they do not belong to him since he no longer occupies the White House.
“He is no longer president. He is unlawfully in possession of them," said Jay Bratt, the head of the Justice Department's counterintelligence section.
The department has also expressed concerns that the appointment could delay the investigation, in part because a special master probably would need to obtain a security clearance to review the records and special authorization from intelligence agencies.
But Cannon, who said she would issue a written ruling at some point, pressed the government on that point, asking, “Ultimately what is the harm?”
Cannon had said on Saturday, before the latest arguments in the matter, that her “preliminary intent” was to appoint a special master. It was not clear whether she might make a final determination Thursday or how her view might be affected by the fact that the Justice Department says it has already reviewed potentially privileged documents.
It was also not clear who might be serve as that outside expert. In some past high-profile cases, the role has been filled by a former federal judge.
Cannon was nominated by Trump in 2020 and confirmed by the Senate 56-21 later that year. She is a former assistant U.S. attorney in Florida, handling mainly criminal appeals.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.