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The DOJ can keep examining classified records seized at Mar-a-Lago

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A federal appeals court declined to endorse special treatment for a former president. Instead, it blocked a ruling on classified documents.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The federal court blocked part of a lower court ruling on papers seized from Trump's Florida residence. This lets the Justice Department resume its examination of around 100 papers marked classified. The lower court ruling named a special master to look over the papers. It said the extraordinary search of an ex-president's home required extra steps to ensure, quote, "at least the appearance of fairness." But the higher court pointedly applied the normal precedents and rules that apply to anyone else.

INSKEEP: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is covering the story. Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note the judges begin this ruling by saying this is limited. They were asked one narrow question, and they answered only the question they were posed - judicial restraint. What did they address?

LUCAS: Well, the Justice Department appealed part of a district court judge's ruling, appointing a special master, as they said, to review the documents seized at Mar-a-Lago. And there are two things that the Justice Department was asking from the appeals court. One, it wanted the appeals court to allow investigators to use around 100 classified documents taken from Mar-a-Lago in the FBI's ongoing criminal investigation. And the other thing is, it wanted the appeals court to stay the lower court ruling ordering the Justice Department to provide the special master with those classified documents.

INSKEEP: OK, so of all the papers seized, they're only focusing on the papers marked classified. This question goes to a three-judge panel, one of them appointed by Barack Obama, two appointed by Donald Trump. Trump-appointed justices, judges, have a majority. What did they say?

LUCAS: Well, this three-judge panel on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals noted that there's no evidence that Trump declassified the sensitive records that were found at Mar-a-Lago. Trump has made that claim in public, of course, but his lawyers, quite notably, have not said as much in court, where they're under oath. The panel also rejected the idea that Trump could have an individual interest in or need for these roughly 100 documents marked as classified. And the panel also said that there's a strong public interest here in ensuring that how these records were stored at Mar-a-Lago did not damage national security.

So what the appeals court ruling means is that the FBI will be able to use the classified materials taken from Mar-a-Lago in their ongoing criminal investigation now, instead of potentially having to wait weeks or months for the special master to review them. And it also means that the FBI doesn't have to provide these classified records to the special master. And it's important to note here, this was a unanimous ruling, including the two Trump-appointed judges.

INSKEEP: But they did leave some of the lower court ruling in place. Does this special master continue looking at the other documents?

LUCAS: So special master Raymond Dearie will continue his review of the roughly 11,000 other documents, yes, but he will no longer be reviewing the classified materials. But it's not clear that Dearie, frankly, had much patience for the Trump legal team's arguments in the first place. There was a hearing earlier this week that Dearie had in New York. Dearie expressed skepticism of the Trump legal team's resistance to providing evidence that Trump had actually attempted to declassify the documents. He actually told Trump's attorneys at one point, you can't have your cake and eat it, too.

INSKEEP: Ryan, reading this ruling, I noted the appeals court underlined how little Trump's lawyers have ever claimed on his behalf in court, where, as you said, they have to be - they're under oath. To rule for Trump, the court would have to find that the FBI acted with callous disregard for his rights, but his lawyers did not even claim that. They never repeated the hyperbole and lies that his supporters have used on cable TV, so how is Trump responding now?

LUCAS: Well, there hasn't been any immediate response from Trump. But look, he's had a lot of other things to deal with on another legal front. Of course, he was sued yesterday by the New York attorney general, who is seeking roughly 250 million in penalties and also to ban Trump, his children, members of the executive team from doing business in New York state. So Trump has had a rough 24 hours on a couple of legal fronts here.

INSKEEP: And you have had a busy time as well. Ryan, thanks so much.

LUCAS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's our colleague Ryan Lucas. Now, the former president took questions last night on Fox. Program host Sean Hannity noted Trump's unsupported claim that he declassified documents, and Hannity asked what his process was. Trump claimed he didn't need a process.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: If you're the president of the United States, you can declassify just by saying, it's declassified - even by thinking about it.

INSKEEP: It is worth noting one thing about the appeals court ruling. They said that even if Trump somehow declassified documents, he still hasn't shown any reason that he should have them in his home. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.