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In Mar-a-Lago case, DOJ wins another dispute over Trump’s lawyers

If there’s any element of the Mar-a-Lago scandal that’s going Donald Trump's way, it's hiding well.


It was about a month ago when Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago scandal effectively returned to its starting point, following an unfortunate legal misadventure. The former president filed an odd lawsuit, which led to an even stranger ruling from a Trump-appointed judge, followed by the appointment of a special master.

Four months after the legal fight began, the entire case was dismissed; the special master went back to his day job; and the Justice Department returned to work investigating the suspected crime, unburdened by restrictions on the materials the FBI retrieved from the former president’s glorified country club.

Since then, there’s been relatively little news about the controversy, but that’s not evidence that the matter is fading away. On the contrary, it’s exactly what was expected given the circumstances: Federal prosecutors are moving forward with their examination, and much of that work happens away from the spotlight.

That said, there are occasional developments of note. The New York Times reported late yesterday:

A federal judge has ordered lawyers for former President Donald J. Trump to give the government the names of the private investigators who searched Mr. Trump’s properties late last year for any remaining classified documents, part of what appeared to be a step by the Justice Department toward questioning the investigators about their efforts, two people familiar with the matter said.

For those who might benefit from a refresher, let’s briefly recap how we arrived at this point, specifically as the story relates to Trump’s private investigators and their search.

It was nearly five months ago when FBI agents executed a court-approved search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, retrieving classified materials that Trump took and refused to give back. There was, however, a related question that has lingered in the background: Are there still other documents in the Republican’s possession that need to be returned?

As recently as early October, the National Archives and Records Administration told Congress that it believes some records from the Trump White House still haven’t been turned over. The New York Times reported soon after that the Justice Department delivered a similar message to the former president’s defense attorneys.

With this in mind, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell pressed Team Trump to do a more thorough search, and the former president hired an outside team to go through his Bedminster golf venue in New Jersey, as well as Trump Tower in New York. The Republican’s lawyers soon after concluded that the searches didn’t turn up anything.

Then they changed course, disclosing at least two items, both of which were marked classified, that were found at a Florida storage unit used by the former president. The materials were, by all accounts, quickly turned over to the FBI.

The disclosures mattered, in part because they left little doubt that Trump failed to fully comply with an earlier federal subpoena, and in part because they suggested the Republican took so many materials marked classified that, in a rather literal sense, he struggled to keep track of them all.

Not surprisingly, Justice Department officials were left with some questions about the private investigators, but the former president and his team were reluctant to share their names. Yesterday, the judge overseeing the matter said Team Trump didn’t have a choice: Prosecutors have a right to know who did the search.

The Times’ report added, “The fact that the Justice Department sought a formal order for the investigators’ names suggests an increasing breakdown in trust between prosecutors investigating the documents case and Mr. Trump’s legal team.”

If there’s any element of this scandal that’s going the former president’s way, I can’t think of it.