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Why Trump’s latest loss in the Mar-a-Lago case is so important

In the Mar-a-Lago scandal, a federal appeals court ruling is a huge problem for Trump. His own rhetoric makes the problem worse.


It was two months ago when U.S. District Court Judge Aileen Cannon gave Trump and his lawyers effectively everything they wanted in the Mar-a-Lago scandal: The Trump-appointed jurist approved a request for a special master and blocked parts of the Justice Department’s ongoing investigation.

As regular readers know, among legal experts from the left, right and center, a consensus formed quickly: Cannon’s decision was ridiculous. Prominent legal voices used words like “nutty,” “preposterous” and “oblivious” when describing the Labor Day ruling. Neal Katyal, a former acting solicitor general, described the judge’s legal analysis as “terrible” and “awful,” before concluding: “Frankly, any of my first-year law students would have written a better opinion.”

On Sept. 21, a three-judge panel at the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals — including two Trump appointees — undid key elements of Cannon’s order. Yesterday, as NBC News reported, the appellate bench took aim at the rest of the district court’s ruling.

A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that a judge’s order appointing a special master to review documents seized from former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort should be dismissed. The ruling by a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit lifts earlier restrictions on the Justice Department’s examination of classified documents and other records and allow investigators to proceed with the probe more quickly.

In its written ruling, the unanimous three-judge panel — featuring two Trump-appointed jurists and a George W. Bush appointee — characterized their findings as obvious and inescapable.

“The law is clear. We cannot write a rule that allows any subject of a search warrant to block government investigations after the execution of the warrant,” the panel wrote. “Accordingly, we agree with the government that the district court improperly exercised equitable jurisdiction, and that dismissal of the entire proceeding is required.”

I can appreciate why incremental developments across multiple courts can get confusing, so let’s make this plain: The Justice Department can’t bring charges in the Mar-a-Lago case unless and until federal investigators know what evidence they have and how they’re able to use it. If yesterday’s ruling from the 11th Circuit prevails, it means a special master shouldn’t have been appointed in the first place, and prosecutors will be able to move forward with their criminal case without interference.

And for the former president who took classified materials, refused to give them back, and allegedly obstructed the retrieval process, this isn’t good news.

Indeed, making matters worse for the Republican, the Justice Department’s efforts were advancing even before yesterday’s news out of the 11th Circuit. The New York Times reported overnight, “In recent weeks, several witnesses connected to the investigation have appeared in front of a grand jury in Federal District Court in Washington. On Thursday, that included three close aides to Mr. Trump, according to two people familiar with the matter.

“The aides were Dan Scavino Jr., Mr. Trump’s former social media guru, William Russell and William B. Harrison, who worked for Mr. Trump when he was in the White House, the people said.”

As for the former president himself, he has reason to be concerned — the possibility of an indictment is quite real — and his rhetoric about the controversy, which he’s describing as “the Document Hoax,” isn’t helping.

Earlier this week, by way of his social media platform, Trump not only admitted that he took documents, he also bragged about the way in which he took them, declaring that he did so “openly and transparently.”

With an intensifying criminal investigation underway, it’s a safe bet the missive wasn’t approved by the Republican’s attorneys.