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Federal judge hears arguments for Trump's request for a special master

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Lawyers for former President Trump and the Justice Department squared off today in a Florida courtroom. Trump's lawyers want a federal judge to appoint a special master, an independent person to review documents seized last month at Trump's Palm Beach residence, Mar-a-Lago. Lawyers for the Justice Department told the judge that's unnecessary, and they say it would interfere with their ongoing investigation of the former president. NPR's Greg Allen was in the courtroom. And, Greg, what did the judge say about whether she's going to appoint a special master or not?

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Well, she did not rule from the bench today, Ari. She said she would issue a written order in due course, in her words. In an order last month she said, though, it was her preliminary intent to appoint a special master. And today she asked the government what harm would be caused by an independent review of what's going on there. Justice Department lawyer Jay Bratt said that - Jay Bratt said it would slow down the investigation. He raised concerns about how the classified material would be handled by whoever does serve in that role. And his main argument, though, was that the material seized belongs to the government, not to former President Trump. He said - Bratt said he's no longer the president. Because of that, he doesn't have the right to those documents. And that ends the analysis.

SHAPIRO: What do Trump's lawyers want a special master to do?

ALLEN: Well, it was interesting in court today. Trump's lawyers started out talking about the need for the special master to review documents that may be subject to attorney-client privilege and to return any that would be covered by that. Judge Eileen Cannon - who's a Trump appointee, by the way - asked them, well, what about executive privilege? And then one of Trump's lawyers, Jim Trusty, picked up on that. And he said, oh, yes, executive privilege is in play as well. And that, as you know, is a highly contentious issue, whether a former president can assert a claim of executive privilege against the current executive branch. The government objected to that position. It brought up - that brought about discussion of a case that involved President Richard Nixon. And that was back during the Watergate era, the Watergate investigation, and it was a case that Nixon lost. The government said firmly that it would be unprecedented for a former president to assert an executive privilege claim against the executive branch.

SHAPIRO: Now, the government argues that it was just executing a search warrant the same way it does every day in cases all across the country. But this is hardly an ordinary case, right?

ALLEN: Right. And I think that's at the crux of the case that the Trump lawyers are making here. They told the judge the search has raised questions about the integrity of the investigation and the need for transparency. They called the release in court documents of a photo this week that showed classified documents strewn over Mar-a-Lago's carpeted floor, basically a press release by the government. They said appointing a special master would help, quote, "restore order and public confidence in the process." They suggested that Trump has a right under the Presidential Records Act to access these documents. They said this isn't some Department of Defense staffer who stuck documents in a bag and snuck them out in the middle of the night. They seemed to indicate this was much different from that. They said a search - the search that was done at Mar-a-Lago raises, quote, "a broad concern about the institution of president." So the judge asked a lot of questions today, and she listened attentively to all their arguments. And we'll now have to just await her decision.

SHAPIRO: She also ordered more documents unsealed today, right? What are those?

ALLEN: Right. Well, she said an inventory of all materials that were seized at Mar-a-Lago last month would be unsealed. That came - it was approved by both sides. She also said a status report by the investigation team could be unsealed. But there's another status report that's being done by Justice Department staff who are reviewing this potentially privileged material. They have a report out, too. And the judge said that would not be unsealed at this time. That's because both the government and Trump's team feel that it has sensitive information, and they want it to remain sealed right now.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Greg Allen reporting from West Palm Beach, Fla. Thank you.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH SONG, "STREET KNOWLEDGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
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