Trump Picked the Special Master but Now He Has Complaints

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(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump got the court-ordered review he wanted of documents seized from his Mar-a-Lago home as well as his preferred pick for a so-called special master to carry it out. But less than a month in, the former president has complaints about how that review is taking shape.

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Trump’s lawyers lodged objections this week to US District Senior Judge Raymond Dearie’s proposal for how his work as special master will proceed over the next few months, according to a letter they sent the judge that was made public Wednesday. Among other things, Trump objected to Dearie’s request that his legal team verify the government’s inventory of what exactly agents seized during the August search, how Dearie had categorized the privilege issues he’d be looking for, and the judge’s request for briefing on certain questions of law.

His legal team also shared new details about the volume of materials seized by FBI agents from Trump’s post-presidency home in Florida, writing in a separate letter to Dearie that they recently learned from the Justice Department attorneys that the roughly 11,000 documents actually tallies about 200,000 pages. The seized materials include a mix of government records, press clippings, books, and other documents, according to the government’s public inventory logs.

In dueling letters to Dearie on Wednesday, Trump’s lawyers and the Justice Department took verbal swipes at each other and assigned blame for a delay in finding a vendor to perform the critical task of turning the hard copy documents into shareable electronic versions. The exchange marked a tense beginning to a review process expected to last at least another two months.

The government pushed back at Trump’s objections to Dearie’s plan for managing the document review, suggesting Trump was unwilling to fully engage with the special master process that he had demanded.

Trump “bears the burden of proof,” government attorneys wrote. “If he wants the special master to make recommendations as to whether he is entitled to the relief he seeks, plaintiff will need to participate in the process” as outlined by the court.

Trump’s lawyers accused Justice Department lawyers of using “conclusory and antagonistic comments” to address their objections.

“DOJ continues to mistake itself as having judicial authority. Its comments are not argument, but proclamations designed to steamroll judicial oversight and the plaintiff’s constitutional rights,” the lawyers wrote.

Privileged Information

They also told Dearie that the government had alerted them earlier in the week about an email that Trump’s team believes should be considered a privileged attorney-client communication. They wrote that it was the third example of a “failure” by a separate team of federal investigators assigned to do an initial scan for any potentially privileged materials.

Dearie, a semi-retired judge in Brooklyn, is tasked with overseeing a review of nearly all of the 11,000-plus documents seized from Mar-a-Lago by the FBI on Aug. 8. A federal appeals court previously sided with the government and removed about 100 documents with classified markings from the review.

Dearie will make recommendations to US District Judge Aileen Cannon about whether any of the documents should be covered by legal protections such as privileges for attorney-client communications or for executive branch deliberations. He proposed a schedule for Trump’s legal team and the Justice Department to submit batches of documents to him on a rolling basis where they disagree about how to categorize them. He wants a final log by Oct. 28 and is due to finish his work by Nov. 30.

Dearie’s mandate from Cannon -- the judge who ultimately will decide whether to accept Dearie’s recommendations -- also includes confirming that the government’s description of what they took from Trump’s Florida home “represents the full and accurate extent” of what was actually seized.

The Justice Department broadly accepted Dearie’s proposal for how to move forward with the review, but did ask for a slight extension to his deadlines for the government to produce documents to the special master and Trump’s legal team. DOJ laid blame with Trump for the delay, writing that all five vendors they proposed to assist with the review were “unwilling” to contract with the former president.

Unwilling Vendors

The government’s letter didn’t say why the vendors weren’t willing to contract with Trump. The problem with finding a third party to scan and upload the documents at issue prevented DOJ and Trump from meeting a Tuesday deadline for selecting a vendor, the Justice Department said in its letter.

Trump’s lawyers responded that vendors had declined the job because the “accelerated timeframes” that the government asked for weren’t realistic given the volume of documents. They accused the government of “blithe dismissal of practical experience” in proposing document production deadlines to the court.

DOJ told Dearie that the government could take charge of the contracting process and likely find a willing vendor quickly, and asked the judge to extend the selection deadline to Thursday.

Trump would still be responsible for paying the third-party company. “The government expects plaintiff to pay the vendor’s invoices promptly when rendered,” the Justice Department said in the letter.

DOJ and Trump’s lawyers jointly asked Dearie to extend the deadline for the vendor completing production to early October “in light of this substantial change in the party contracting with the vendor.”

The case is Trump v. USA, 9:22-cv-81294, US District Court for the Southern District of Florida (West Palm Beach).

(Updated with additional information from new court filings on Thursday.)

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