After years of investigations into Teflon Don, could this one finally stick?

Washington: Donald Trump is in trouble.

In the weeks since his Mar-a-Lago estate was searched for classified documents, Trump’s attempts to portray himself as the victim of another political witch-hunt have backfired spectacularly, helping the Justice Department convince the public it had every reason to probe the former US president.

Donald Trump and the receipt for property that was seized at Mar-a-Lago.Credit:AP

If Trump hadn’t posted his social media statement on August 8 telling the world his Florida property was being raided by the FBI – “they even broke into my safe!” – the search could have arguably been conducted as intended: quickly and quietly.

If Trump hadn’t fuelled the rage and conspiracy theories of his supporters by claiming the “radical left” was simply out to get him, US Attorney General Merrick Garland may not have taken the extraordinary step of asking a court to unseal the search warrant, which subsequently led to the redacted affidavit justifying the search also being released last week.

And if Trump hadn’t requested an independent Special Master to review the classified documents – claiming in a court filing last week that the raid was “unnecessary” and “legally unsupported” – the Justice Department would have not been required to pre-empt a response eviscerating his claims. But what a response it was.

Contained in a court filing by the Department of Justice on August 30 and redacted by in part by the FBI, was this photo of documents seized during the August search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.Credit:DoJ/AP

A Special Master is an independent third party appointed in sensitive cases to review materials potentially covered by attorney-client privilege to ensure investigators do not improperly view them.

Submitted shortly before midnight on Tuesday (US time) the DoJ’s 36-page court filing makes it clear that this investigation into Trump goes well beyond allegations of mishandling government documents: it also lays out the strongest case yet of potential obstruction of justice against the former president and his aides.

The department’s case can essentially be summed up in three parts. The first is that Trump unlawfully took highly sensitive documents after leaving the White House, risking national security and compromising global intelligence sources.

The second is that there’s evidence that “efforts were likely taken to obstruct the government’s investigation”, including one of Trump lawyers who “explicitly prohibited” FBI agents from examining boxes during a search in June. There is also evidence that important government documents were likely being “concealed and removed” while authorities sought to retrieve them.

And the third is that Trump now is inventing a litany of excuses, largely posted on his Truth Social platform, to cover up his actions.

As former prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, a member of the Mueller investigation into Trump’s links to Russia, tweeted about the department’s assertions: “You don’t make a filing this strong, bold, and factually accusatory if you don’t have every intention to indict.”

But while the Justice Department clearly believed there was probable cause that a potential crime may have been committed, it is still not clear whether it would – or could, based on the evidence – take the next massive step of charging a former president and potential candidate for the 2024 election.

Such a move would require prosecutors to clear a high legal bar, all the while knowing the political fallout of a losing such a case could be devastating and dangerous.

Trump ally and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham hinted as much over the weekend when he told Fox News: “If there’s a prosecution of Donald Trump for mishandling classified information…there’ll be riots in the streets.”

Nonetheless, things aren’t looking good for America’s 45th president. Last week’s partly redacted search warrant revealed that authorities had descended on Mar-a-Lago seeking evidence for potential violations of three statutes: the Espionage Act, mishandling national defence documents, and obstruction of justice.

Now we know, through the department’s extraordinary filing this week, more details about what allegedly took place behind the scenes. The FBI found more than 100 classified documents last month – more than twice the number of documents Trump’s team handed over in June as part of a grand jury subpoena.

At that time of the subpoena, one of his lawyers even submitted a sworn statement claiming a “diligent search” had been undertaken. But this was not the case, prosecutors said, and to underscore their point, a photo was even attached to the court filing showing a box of government material they said was recovered from Trump’s office – some marked “Secret” and others “Top Secret”.

“That the FBI, in a matter of hours, recovered twice as many documents with classification markings as the ‘diligent search’ that the former President’s counsel and other representatives had weeks to perform calls into serious question the representations made in the June 3 certification and casts doubt on the extent of cooperation in this matter,” they wrote.

The notice filed by the US Justice Department which enabled the FBI to raid Mr Trump’s resort at Mar-a-Lago.Credit:AP

Trump, meanwhile, remains defiant. In a formal court response to the Justice Department’s filing released on Wednesday night (US time), his lawyers downplayed the government’s concerns, arguing that “the notion the presidential records contain sensitive information should never have been cause for alarm.”

He also described the department’s raid as “unprecedented, unnecessary and legally unsupported” and insisted that the material in his possession was securely stored.

And he reiterated his call for a Special Master to review the documents taken, saying that without one, the department would “impugn, leak and publicise selective aspects” of their probe to their advantage.

A federal judge in Florida will decide on Trump’s request; the latest development in a broader investigation that the department admits is still in early stages.

The trouble is, it’s not the only one. Having been impeached twice, Trump now also faces a congressional probe into his role in the US Capitol attack; investigations into his company and personal finances; and a defamation lawsuit brought by writer E. Jean Carroll after he denied raping her in the ’90s.

As Teflon Trump considers another tilt for the White House, could it be that something finally sticks?

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