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Appeals court halts special master review of documents seized at Mar-a-Lago in major defeat for Trump

<i>Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images</i><br/>A federal appeals court on December 1 halted a third-party review of documents seized from former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate. Trump is seen here in August 2017 in Washington
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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
A federal appeals court on December 1 halted a third-party review of documents seized from former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate. Trump is seen here in August 2017 in Washington

By Tierney Sneed

In a major defeat for former President Donald Trump, a federal appeals court on Thursday halted a third-party review of documents seized from his Mar-a-Lago estate.

The ruling removes a major obstacle to the Justice Department’s investigation into the mishandling of government records from Trump’s time in the White House.

The three-judge panel of the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed US District Judge Aileen Cannon’s order appointing a so-called special master to sort through thousands of documents found at Trump’s home to determine what should be off limits to investigators. The court said the judge should not have intervened in the first place.

“The law is clear,” the appeals court wrote. “We cannot write a rule that allows any subject of a search warrant to block government investigations after the execution of the warrant. Nor can we write a rule that allows only former presidents to do so.”

The 11th Circuit said that either approach would be a “radical reordering of our caselaw limiting the federal courts’ involvement in criminal investigations” and that “both would violate bedrock separation-of-powers limitations.”

The Justice Department is investigating obstruction of justice, criminal mishandling of government records and violations of the Espionage Act, according to court filings. The probe exploded into public view with the August search, which came after investigators obtained evidence they said led them to believe that Trump had not complied with a subpoena for all documents marked as classified being stored at his Florida home.

The opinion — which was issued jointly by the three-judge panel made up of all GOP appointees — dismantled Trump’s arguments for why a special master was necessary. The court said that only in extraordinary circumstances should courts intervene in Justice Department investigations that are still in their early stages, and that standard had not been met here.

“This restraint guards against needless judicial intrusion into the course of criminal investigations—a sphere of power committed to the executive branch,” the court wrote.

The appeals court said that its new ruling will go into effect in seven days, unless a party in the case successfully seeks an order — known as a stay — pausing the ruling from going into effect while it is appealed.

Trump’s legal team has not decided whether to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court but is weighing the option, a source familiar with the discussions told CNN.

Rebuke of Judge Cannon’s deference to Trump

The ruling is a stinging rebuke of how Cannon inserted herself into the dispute. In addition to reversing the order, the appeals court is instructing her to dismiss the entire case.

The appeals court took aim at the idea, hinted at in her order appointing the special master, that Trump deserves special treatment because he is a former president.

“It is indeed extraordinary for a warrant to be executed at the home of a former president — but not in a way that affects our legal analysis or otherwise gives the judiciary license to interfere in an ongoing investigation,” the court said.

To create that “special exception,” the 11th Circuit wrote “would defy our Nation’s foundational principle that our law applies ‘to all, without regard to numbers, wealth, or rank.'”

The three-judge panel that issued the ruling is comprised of appointees of Republican presidents, including two who were put on the bench by Trump: Britt Grant and Andrew Basher. Both jurists had previously hinted in a ruling related to the case that they believed Cannon had overreached.

The third, Judge William Pryor, the chief judge of the appellate court, is an appointee of George W. Bush who has long demonstrated his conservative bona fides on a host of controversial issues.

Trump had sought the special master in the weeks after the August search, securing the court order from Cannon. Judge Raymond Dearie, a senior judge who sits in Brooklyn, had been tasked by Cannon with leading the review of the thousands of documents that remained.

During oral arguments in the 11th Circuit case, Trump’s attorney James Trusty said that only about 900 of those documents were in dispute. Trump’s legal team contends the documents are his personal records or privileged and should be kept outside the scope of the investigation.

Lawyers for the Justice Department argued that the special master process stood to drag out for several weeks, if not months, impeding the probe into the documents. Prosecutors said that without access to the other documents, they could not question witnesses about the materials that had been found intermixed with classified records at Mar-a-Lago.

The Justice Department effort is now being led by special counsel Jack Smith, who was appointed last week to helm that probe and another investigation into efforts to reverse Trump’s 2020 election loss that could implicate the former president and current 2024 White House candidate.

Smith took over the investigation shortly before the 11th Circuit heard oral arguments in the case and said in court filings that he approved the stance federal prosecutors had taken. He has promised to not let his appointment slow the pace of the investigations he’s taking over.

This story has been updated with additional details.

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CNN’s Devan Cole and Kaitlan Collins contributed to this report.

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