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Trump’s Mar-a-Lago special master gambit seems to be backfiring

As one legal scholar put it, Team Trump's request for a special master in the Mar-a-Lago case "has the feel of a giant backfire."


UPDATE: (Sept. 30, 2022, 7:32 a.m. ET): A federal judge ruled Thursday that former President Donald Trump’s legal team does not need to comply with special master Raymond Dearie’s order for a sworn declaration on whether Trump believes FBI agents lied about the documents seized from Mar-a-Lago during a court-approved search.

As of a few weeks ago, Team Trump’s request for a special master in the Mar-a-Lago case appeared to be going quite well, the underlying merits notwithstanding. The former president and his lawyers had found an apparent ally in U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon — whom Donald Trump had earlier tapped for the federal judiciary — and the Justice Department’s criminal investigation was put on hold.

When federal officials also agreed to the Republican’s choice of arbiters, U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie, it appeared as if Trump and his defense attorneys had lined up the pieces exactly as they’d hoped to see them.

At least, that’s how things looked earlier this month. Now, as The New York Times’ Charlie Savage explained, the entire effort to involve a special master appears to be backfiring.

Former President Donald J. Trump’s request that a judge intervene in the criminal investigation into his hoarding of government documents by appointing a special master increasingly looks like a significant blunder, legal experts say. “Maybe from Trump’s point of view, creating delay and chaos is always a plus, but this has the feel of a giant backfire,” said Peter M. Shane, a legal scholar in residence at New York University and a specialist in separation-of-powers law.

By some measures, the winds shifted last week, when a unanimous 11th Circuit Court of Appeals panel rejected Cannon’s ruling and allowed the Justice Department to resume using classified documents, retrieved from Mar-a-Lago, in its criminal investigation.

Blocking access to these materials was one of the principal goals of Team Trump’s legal strategy, and the appellate court knocked it down.

So what are the former president and his lawyers left with? An expensive process — that the Republican is forced to finance — featuring a special master who isn’t doing Trump any favors. Savage’s analysis added, “[F]ar from indulging Mr. Trump, as his lawyers likely hoped in suggesting his appointment, Judge Dearie appears to be organizing the document review in ways that threaten to swiftly puncture the former president’s defenses.”

Quite right. As we discussed last week, Trump has repeatedly suggested that corrupt FBI agents might’ve “planted” evidence at Mar-a-Lago. A special master invited the Republican’s lawyers to prove it — and since they won’t be able to, this will cause fresh embarrassment to the scandal-plagued politician who not only initiated this process, but who’s also having to write checks to pay for it, even as the criminal investigation that he hoped to delay continues.

If recent history is any guide, Trump will soon lash out online, targeting the process he requested, the lawyers he hired, and the special master he sought, indifferent to the fact that this mess was his doing.