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Heavily redacted classified documents are pictured

Documents marked "secret" and "top secret" are pictured at former President Donald Trump's Florida home. (Photo: U.S. Department of Justice)

Siding With DOJ, Appeals Court Rules Trump Judge 'Abused' Discretion by Halting Criminal Probe

The former president "has not even attempted to show that he has a need to know the information contained in the classified documents," a three-judge federal panel wrote in its decision.

Jake Johnson

A three-judge federal appeals court panel ruled unanimously Wednesday that Judge Aileen Cannon—a Trump appointee—"abused" her discretion by barring the U.S. Department of Justice from proceeding with its criminal investigation into the former president's removal of classified documents from the White House.

In a scathing 29-page order granting a partial stay of the district court judge's order, two Trump appointees and one Obama appointee on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit dismantled Cannon's legal reasoning for halting the Justice Department's criminal probe of documents, writing that they could not "discern why [Trump] would have an individual interest in or need for any of the one-hundred documents with classification markings."

"This reads more like disappointed professors correcting a student who clearly hadn't been doing the reading or paying attention in class."

Cannon insisted in her ruling earlier this month that the former president has an interest in the documents seized from his Florida home in an August 8 raid because the containers also included "medical documents, correspondence related to taxes, and accounting information."

But the appeals panel noted that Cannon failed to explain how Trump "might have an individual interest in or need for the classified documents" in particular and observed that the classified material is easily separated from any personal items.

"Classified documents are marked to show they are classified, for instance, with their classification level," the appeals court ruling notes. "Plaintiff has not even attempted to show that he has a need to know the information contained in the classified documents... Plaintiff suggests that he may have declassified these documents when he was president. But the record contains no evidence that any of these records were declassified."

In a Fox News interview that aired late Wednesday, Trump claimed the president can declassify documents "by thinking about it."

The appeals court panel went on to reject Cannon's claim that Trump could suffer "irreparable harm" if the DOJ is permitted to continue its criminal probe of the documents' seizure before a special master is allowed to review the materials. To justify that assertion, Cannon cited "the threat of future prosecution and the serious, often indelible stigma associated therewith."

In response, the appeals court judges wrote that "no doubt the threat of prosecution can weigh heavily on the mind of someone under investigation."

"But without diminishing the seriousness of that burden," they added, "'if the mere threat of prosecution were allowed to constitute irreparable harm... every potential defendant could point to the same harm and invoke the equitable powers of the district court.'"

The panel, whose ruling was limited to the roughly 100 classified documents found at Trump's home, ultimately concluded that "an injunction delaying (or perhaps preventing) the United States' criminal investigation from using classified materials risks imposing real and significant harm on the United States and the public."

"The United States also argues that allowing the special master and plaintiff's counsel to examine the classified records would separately impose irreparable harm," the judges continued. "We agree."

In addition to delivering a win for the Justice Department, which will now be allowed to utilize the classified materials in its criminal probe, the ruling as a whole amounted to a striking rebuke of Cannon's handling of the case and of the Trump team's attempts to hinder the DOJ's probe into the former president's removal of classified and "top secret" documents from the White House.

"This reads more like disappointed professors correcting a student who clearly hadn't been doing the reading or paying attention in class," The Intercept's Ryan Grim wrote of the appeals court decision.

"Rather than engage in any sophisticated legal reasoning or deep exploration of precedent," Grim added, "the judges here... simply laid out how and why Judge Cannon wasn't even remotely close to being right in appointing a 'special master' to review these documents."

Trump's team, which has claimed the appeals court doesn't have jurisdiction to review Cannon's ruling, could now turn to the conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court for relief.

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