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Why today’s court hearing on the Mar-a-Lago affidavit matters

The DOJ confirmed that the Mar-a-Lago investigation is in its “early stages” — a point that probably ought to cause Donald Trump considerable discomfort.


It was late last week when the public was first able to review some of the official documents related to the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago. If Republicans who demanded to see the materials thought they’d benefit Donald Trump, they were mistaken.

In fact, the opposite proved true: The released documents showed that federal law enforcement recovered extensive top secret and other heavily classified documents that the former president — for reasons that are still unknown — decided to keep in his glorified country club. What’s more, the unsealed warrant noted the relevant crimes the Justice Department believes may have been committed, and pointed to the Espionage Act, the Presidential Records Act, and alleged obstruction of justice.

And while this offered important insights into the investigation, it was only a partial peek behind the curtain. In the days that followed, a variety of parties — including news organizations and Trump himself — also called for the release of the probable cause affidavit used to secure a search warrant in the first place.

On this, the Justice Department was far more cautious, insisting that the affidavit included sensitive details that risked jeopardizing an ongoing probe. (For the former president, this was a feature, not a bug, of disclosure.) It led to an important court hearing today. As NBC News reported that the court is now inclined to unseal at least some of the affidavit.

“On my initial careful review ... there are portions of it that can be unsealed,” Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart said after a hearing where a top government lawyer contended the document’s release could jeopardize an investigation that is still in its “early stages.” Reinhart said he would “give the government a full and fair opportunity” to make redactions to the document, and ordered them to turn in the redacted version by next Thursday.

Those wondering if they’ll see the document today can stand down: Reinhart will review the Justice Department’s proposed redactions next week and proceed from there. It appears likely that we’ll get to see some information next week, but how much remains to be seen.

But in the meantime, today’s court proceedings helped advance the story in ways that matter.

During today’s hour-long hearing, for example, Jay Bratt, a top counterintelligence and national security official at the Justice Department, confirmed that there’s evidence of obstruction, and investigators had reason to believe that evidence “would be found at Mar-a-Lago.”

Bratt added that the affidavit is a “detailed and reasonably lengthy” document that contains “substantial grand jury” information in a “unique” case with “national security overtones.”

As NBC News’ report added, the DOJ official went on to explain that federal law enforcement is “very concerned about the safety of the witnesses” in the case whose identities could become compromised if the affidavit is unsealed. Bratt pointed to “amateur sleuths on the internet” who could “maybe find personal information.”

Reinhart was inclined to release a redacted version of the document anyway — the redactions will presumably address the Justice Department’s stated concerns — but all of this tells us quite a bit. For example, we now know that the criminal investigation is in its “early stages” — a point that probably ought to cause considerable discomfort for the former president — and there are “several” witnesses with valuable information.

What’s more, let’s also not forget that the lawyers arguing for more disclosure represented news organizations, including NBC News, not Trump. Indeed, for all the all-caps outrage the former president expressed online this week, his lawyers had nothing to say today — they were not a party in this case — and made no court filings in the matter.

The disconnect was jarring: On his Twitter-like platform, the Republican declared this week, “[I]n the interest of TRANSPARENCY, I call for the immediate release of the completely Unredacted Affidavit.” But Trump’s lawyers apparently didn’t share this perspective, and played the role of observers in court today, failing to echo their client’s call.

Watch this space.