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Trump Mar-a-Lago documents: What is a special master?

Former President Donald Trump’s request for independent oversight was approved by a judge, but finding a suitable candidate will prove difficult.

Trump requests special master for Mar-a-Lago search

The fallout from the FBI search of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-A-Lago residence continues after Trump’s team successfully requested a ‘special master’ be appointed to review the documents seized.

Since the 8 August search Trump has maintained that he is being unfairly persecuted, despite federal agents finding hundreds of classified White House documents. Trump’s team claimed that a special master is needed to ensure that any private documents, those which he has a legal right to keep, are returned to him after the search.

A federal judge approved this request but finding an appropriate regulator to carry out the role is proving difficult. US District Judge Aileen Cannon will be the one who ultimately decides on the identity of the special master, but the exact scope of the role is still contested.

What does a special master do?

In legal proceedings, a court can appoint a third-party, independent attorney to oversee the execution of a particular part of the case. In his instance, the special master would only preside over the decision-making process regarding which documents should be returned to Trump.

However given the sensitive nature of the documents in questions (the FBI search claims to have uncovered papers bearing the highest level of classified marking) finding a suitable candidate has been tricky.

The Justice Department is now required to complete a review of the evidence gathered in the FBI search to remove any privileged material. This essentially prevents the Department of Justice (DOJ) from carrying out any further investigation of the documents gathered in the search, “pending completion of the special master’s review or further Court order.”

Trump’s legal team claimed that the former President’s constitutional rights had been violated by the confiscation of potentially privileged documents. However his attorneys stopped short of making any clear claims about the documents taken.

Instead, they simply argued that the search may have unearthed “privileged and potentially privileged materials.”

Who will Trump’s special master be?

Although the request for the special master was made by Trump’s lawyers, the process of identifying an independent figure is balanced evenly between the two sides involved in the case. The government has lodged an appeal against the ruling but remains engaged in the process to identify a special master.

The DOJ has put forward two retired federal judges for the role: Judge Barbara S. Jones (appointed by President Bill Clinton) and Judge Thomas B. Griffith (appointed by President George W. Bush).

In response, Trump’s legal team put forward retired federal Judge Raymond J. Dearie (appointed by President Ronald Reagan) and Paul Huck Jr., a former partner at Jones Day who previously served in the Florida state government.

Legal experts are not expecting a quick or amicable resolution to the matter.

Alan Rozenshtein, a former attorney in the DOJ National Security Division, told CNN: “The problem is the parties will not come to an agreement, because there’s no incentive for either party to agree to the other party’s view.”