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Donald Trump Files a Bizarre, Messy Lawsuit To Block DOJ From Seeing Those Classified Documents

Donald Trump wears a red MAGA hat while driving a golf cart, gives a thumbs up to the camera

Yesterday was a big day in the messy world of Mar-a-Lago. It was revealed that the FBI found more than 300 documents at Donald Trump’s home, which gives some insight into why the Justice Department was so anxious to get in there. The National Archives and Records Administration wrote what is being seen as an “extraordinarily damning” letter assessing the level of national security damage Trump caused by holding onto those documents. And Trump also filed a lawsuit to try to get those documents—which he has reportedly referred to as “mine”—back, though the official complaint reads more like a campaign rally speech than an actual legal action.

Like I said, a big day!

Trump’s bizarre legal filing

Trump filed a lawsuit Thursday asking a court to halt the government’s review of the documents seized from his home until after they could be assessed by a “special master.” But the complaint Trump filed is really strange. To start, it was originally filed “pro se,” which means Trump would be representing himself.

There have been reports lately of Trump’s attempts to get competent legal counsel, but no decent lawyer wants to represent him. As The Washington Post describes it, Trump’s “current legal team includes a Florida insurance lawyer who’s never had a federal case, a past general counsel for a parking-garage company and a former host at far-right One America News.”

Still, the decision to do this on his own would be a surprising one. But it looks like he’s not actually doing that, and that one of his lawyers is now officially assigned to the case. I guess it was just a lawyer oopsie.

Making Trump’s filing even weirder is the fact that it reads like a political stump speech. Trump once again tries to frame the FBI’s search as a political witch hunt and implies its real purpose was to kill his potential 2024 run. “President Donald J. Trump is the clear frontrunner in the 2024 Republican Presidential Primary and in the 2024 General Election, should he decide to run,” the lawsuit reads.

What is a “special master”?

Trump has asked a federal court to appoint a “special master” to review the documents taken by the FBI, and to stop the government from looking at them until after that review is done. A special master is basically just a third-party investigator, and it makes sense that Trump would ask for one, given how he’s accused literally everyone involved in the search of his home of being political actors.

So what did the FBI find?

We still don’t know what what was in those 11 sets of documents the FBI reportedly took from Mar-a-Lago—and we shouldn’t expect to ever find out, since the whole point of this investigation is to keep them secret. But according to a new report from the New York Times, a whopping 300 classified documents have been taken in total—150 in January and another 150 in the recent search.

The Times writes:

The previously unreported volume of the sensitive material found in the former president’s possession in January helps explain why the Justice Department moved so urgently to hunt down any further classified materials he might have.

And the extent to which such a large number of highly sensitive documents remained at Mar-a-Lago for months, even as the department sought the return of all material that should have been left in government custody when Mr. Trump left office, suggested to officials that the former president or his aides had been cavalier in handling it, not fully forthcoming with investigators, or both.

So the FBI was so concerned about what they found in January that they’ve been trying for months to get the rest. They actually didn’t even get access to that original batch until May, and it sounds like that’s because Trump spent the time in between fighting to keep the National Archives and Records Administration from turning over the documents at all.

NARA sent a letter to Trump’s lawyers on May 10 telling them that they would no longer be complying with his demands that they withhold the documents and denying Trump’s assertions that he has executive privilege to keep them secret. The NARA letter cites the case of Richard Nixon (not someone a former president should want to be compared to!) in saying “a former President may not successfully assert executive privilege ‘against the very Executive Branch in whose name the privilege is invoked.'”

Basically, a former president can’t claim executive privilege to fight the current president’s administration.

The letter—which, by the way, was published in full by conservative journalist and Trump/NARA liason John Solomon, presumably because they thought this would somehow look good for them—also reveals just how highly classified many of these documents are.

“NARA identified items marked as classified national security information, up to the level of Top Secret and including Sensitive Compartmented Information and Special Access Program materials,” the letter reads.

What happens now?

Last week, U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart ordered the Justice Department to turn over a redacted version of the affidavit used to obtain the search warrant for Trump’s home, with a deadline of this Thursday at noon. Journalists have been lobbying to get access to the affidavit and Judge Reinhart seems to think that releasing that information will work to quell some of the anger and the perception of politicization in the case. Of course, this is Trump we’re talking about, so matter what is released, he will yell about it until his supporters believe he’s been wronged in some grave way.

(image: Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.