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Investigation into Trump’s Mar-a-Lago scandal comes full circle

Donald Trump's litigation interfered with the Justice Department's investigation into the Mar-a-Lago scandal for months. All of that's officially over now.


On Dec. 1, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals told Donald Trump and his legal defense team what they didn’t want to hear: The order that appointed a special master to review the former president’s Mar-a-Lago documents was wrong. The appellate bench — featuring two Trump-appointed jurists and a George W. Bush appointee — added that the Justice Department’s examination of the materials could move forward without restrictions.

The appeals court gave the Republican and his attorneys until Dec. 8 to appeal the ruling and/or request a stay before the order took effect. As NBC News reported, Team Trump, reading the writing on the wall, didn’t bother.

And so, as Talking Points Memo noted, when it comes to the former president’s Mar-a-Lago scandal, we’re now “back to the beginning.”

Newly free, the DOJ is now returning to what it was doing in August: investigating Trump’s retention of government documents at Mar-a-Lago, and considering whether to charge him. After the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals put an end to the freeze that U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon for the Southern District of Florida placed on the probe, the investigation is, in some ways, picking up where it left off.

As legal fights go, this one followed an unusually odd path. It was on Aug. 8 when the FBI executed a court-approved search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, retrieving sensitive materials Trump took and refused to give back. Two weeks later, as Justice Department officials reviewed what they’d found, the Republican filed a lawsuit, demanding a special master to intervene, and seeking a court order to stop the FBI from examining the documents already in its possession.

Orin Kerr, a conservative law professor at UC Berkeley, noted at the time that many lawyers were “giggling at Trump’s motion, and how poorly it was done.”

The litigation moved forward anyway, leading prosecutors to make a series of disclosures, each of which made Trump look worse, that they wouldn’t otherwise have made were it not for the odd lawsuit.

A Trump-appointed district court judge, indifferent to her professional reputation, ultimately gave the former president effectively everything he wanted, including a special master, though when U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie took on the role, that largely backfired, too.

Now, nearly four months after the ill-fated lawsuit was filed, in the wake of failed appeals and embarrassing revelations for the plaintiff, it’s all over: The special master review is no more, and the case that led to his appointment has run its course.

For Trump, this wasn’t a total loss: He delayed the Justice Department from accessing its own documents for a while, slowing down a criminal investigation that could, at least in theory, lead to his possible indictment. The Republican has spent years embracing tactical postponements and interruptions, and he might very well take some comfort in the fact that he bought his legal defense some time.

But that’s over now. The Justice Department not only has the materials it retrieved from the former president’s glorified country club, it can now access and use those documents in its criminal investigation, free of any court-imposed restrictions.

Update: As expected, the district court formally dismissed Trump's original case this morning.