Trump Faces Setbacks In Mar-a-Lago Case — And More Litigation In New York : The NPR Politics Podcast A panel of judges from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the Justice Department to resume reviewing classified documents seized at Mar-a-Lago without the supervision of a special master. Meanwhile, New York state attorney general Letitia James announced the filing of a $250 million civil suit against Trump and some of his children, alleging fraudulent business practices.

This episode: political reporter Deepa Shivaram, national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, and reporter Andrea Bernstein.

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Trump Faces Setbacks In Mar-a-Lago Case — And More Litigation In New York

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ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hey, Atlanta, it's Asma Khalid from the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. We are going to be live on stage doing our show Thursday, October 20 at 8 p.m. at the Buckhead Theatre, and we'd love for you to be there. Ticket info is at nprpresents.org. Thanks to our partners, Georgia Public Broadcasting, WABE and WCLK Jazz. See you there.

DENISE FRAME HARLAN: Hey, NPR POLITICS listeners. My name is Denise Frame Harlan, and by day, I teach first-year writing at Mass. College of the Arts. And I'm a writer myself. By night, I knit socks for Stockingfoot Knits. I have been knitting socks on a machine that was designed first during the Civil War period since 2015. NPR POLITICS was my first podcast listen and also one of my favorites. Today's date is...

KHALID: It's Thursday, September 22, and it's 1:06 p.m. Eastern Time.

HARLAN: All right. Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I will still be knitting washable wool socks.

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DEEPA SHIVARAM, HOST:

Civil War socks, incredible.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Amazing. What an amazing sound.

SHIVARAM: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Deepa Shivaram. I cover politics.

JOHNSON: And I'm Carrie Johnson, national justice correspondent.

SHIVARAM: There's been a lot of developments in the various court cases surrounding former President Donald Trump. So let's bring in Andrea Bernstein, who covers Trump's ongoing legal issues for NPR. Hi, Andrea.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Hey, Deepa. Hey, Carrie.

JOHNSON: Hey.

SHIVARAM: All right. So let's start. First, a ruling that came in late last night allowing the Justice Department to resume its probe of documents seized at Trump's Mar-a-Lago home. Carrie, back up a bit here. Remind us how we got to this point.

JOHNSON: Well, remember on August 8, the former president told the world that he had been subject to a search by multiple FBI agents at his resort in Mar-a-Lago in Florida and that the FBI had taken numerous materials. Since that time, Trump has put up a big legal fight. He won in a lower court, asking for a special master to review some of these materials for possible attorney-client privilege and executive privilege issues. Well, last night, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit disagreed, rebuked that lower court judge Aileen Cannon, who was appointed by Donald Trump, and basically has allowed the Justice Department to proceed with parts of its big, ongoing investigation.

SHIVARAM: So this is an appeals court. What exactly did this ruling from last night say? Walk us through that.

JOHNSON: DOJ did something relatively savvy here, according to legal experts. DOJ did not contest the idea of a special master altogether but basically said for the 100-odd pages of material marked classified that the FBI had recovered from Mar-a-Lago in August, that it needed to use those materials to continue its damage assessment to national security and to advance its probe of possible obstruction of justice and mishandling of government secrets. And DOJ said that its authorities needed to review that material now. The federal appeals court last night agreed with the Justice Department, found that there would be a potentially irreparable harm to national security and to the public interest if prosecutors were curtailed in pursuing both of these parts of the investigation. And the court also said that these were not former President Trump's materials. These were not personal papers. These were papers that belonged to the government and that on their face were marked classified.

SHIVARAM: Right. And this really saves the Department of Justice some time here in the investigation as well. But in the meantime, in the background of all of this, Andrea, there is a three-year investigation that was going on. New York State Attorney General Letitia James filed a civil lawsuit on Wednesday against Trump.

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LETITIA JAMES: The complaint demonstrates that Donald Trump falsely inflated his net worth by billions of dollars to unjustly enrich himself and to cheat the system.

SHIVARAM: Andrea, tell me about that suit.

BERNSTEIN: So this was a massive $250 million civil lawsuit against Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump and Eric Trump, as well as top corporate executives and a number of Trump business entities. And basically what the attorney general alleged in sum and substance is that the Trump family business had a business model of fraud, that they persistently lied about the value of their properties - of Trump Tower in New York, of the golf courses, of Mar-a-Lago - all in order to fraudulently obtain favorable bank loans, according to the complaint, as well as get better deals on their taxes and cheat insurance companies out of money that was due to them. What was so striking about this is that there were more than 200 examples in the 222-page complaint. Incidentally, there were many cases where Donald Trump seems to have changed his business practices as a response to this investigation.

So this is a big, big deal. This is the third lawsuit that the New York attorney general's office has brought against Trump entities. And in each case, there were severe penalties. This case is so much bigger because it involves the central business of the Trump organization - real estate, resorts, golf courses, licensing. It is all there. And the - what they are asking is not only for $250 million, but essentially for the Trumps to have to step back from doing business in New York.

SHIVARAM: Wow. OK. So 200 examples of fraud is, like - I'm still stuck on that. But I just want to clarify here. This means that there's no criminal charges from this suit - right? - because it's a civil case. Are there potential for this to turn into a criminal case as well?

BERNSTEIN: So there could be a criminal investigation resulting from this. The New York attorney general has referred this case to the Southern District of New York - which is the federal prosecutors in Manhattan, part of the Justice Department - and also the IRS to examine whether any of the allegations in this civil lawsuit, in fact, also mean that there was criminal federal tax fraud.

SHIVARAM: OK, got it. And just generally, we know that Trump has been quick to criticize investigations into him. What has he said in response to this civil suit so far?

BERNSTEIN: So Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr. have essentially called it a witch hunt. They've said it is without merit. I think one of the interesting things about this is that that has been a - Donald Trump has been resisting this investigation and was actually held in contempt of court, refused to turn over documents. And in his briefs in that, he and his lawyers represented that this was a witch hunt. And the judge in this case said, well, it doesn't matter that the New York attorney general is a Democrat. It doesn't matter that, when she ran for office, she said she was going to investigate Donald Trump. What matters are the facts and the law.

SHIVARAM: Interesting. All right. We're going to take a quick break, and we'll be back in a second.

And we're back with more investigations. Carrie, let's go back into the Mar-a-Lago case and the special master. Donald Trump was on Sean Hannity's show on Fox News last night, talking about the documents involved in that case.

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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 - because you're sending it to Mar-a-Lago or to wherever you're sending it. And there doesn't have to be a process. There can be a process, but there doesn't have to be.

SHIVARAM: Carrie, explain some of that. And also, you know, you walked us through the ruling from the 11th Circuit that came out. What happens next?

JOHNSON: So, you know, even though Donald Trump and his allies have been making arguments since August that some of these materials may have been declassified, there's actually no paperwork reflecting that at all. And multiple courts now, both the 11th Circuit and the special master, have raised doubts about the idea that these materials were actually declassified. The 11th Circuit, last night, said there's no evidence in the record. And when the special master asked Trump's lawyers about it in Brooklyn earlier this week, they didn't answer the question. But in any event, the judges say this whole issue is a red herring because, even if you declassified a particular document, it wouldn't make it a personal document that would be Donald Trump's document. It would still be a government document. And the government documents belong with the government, especially classified ones, which belong in special, secure, compartmented facilities, not in a Florida resort.

So what happened today is that the judge, Aileen Cannon in Florida - the one who initially appointed the special master - told the special master, no, he no longer had to deal with these classified materials. And the special master, who was appointed during the Reagan administration, is a guy who's been doing this for a long time - a very long time. He seems to want to get this process done quickly. And the idea that the 11th Circuit has now intervened could mean that there will be less delay of the sort the DOJ had wanted to avoid and Trump's legal team had been angling for all this time. The Justice Department wouldn't say today whether it's resumed its review of the materials, but we do know they've told courts that they want to get this done as quickly as possible. And so they have many steps to take, including grand jury and witness interviews, and they're going to take them now.

SHIVARAM: And I have one more investigation to ask about. There are more January 6 hearings coming up, and a lot has changed since the last hearing, right?

JOHNSON: Yeah, the House Select Committee is going to hold what it's calling for now its final hearing on September 28. We don't know exactly what that's going to focus on yet, but we do know that they have a record now of producing some blockbuster new information. So all eyes are going to be on that. We're going to cover that, of course, for NPR and the podcast.

And next week, also, the Justice Department will begin, in federal court here in D.C., its first seditious conspiracy trial against former leaders of the Oath Keepers, the far-right militia group. They're accused of allegedly trying to overthrow the government by force before and after January 6 and the Capitol insurrection. So we're going to be watching that closely, too.

BERNSTEIN: A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since the last January 6 hearings this past summer. Just to go back to when we started the hearings, back at the beginning of June, there was very little public about any Justice Department investigations of the former president or of the actions around January 6 involving top-level officials. And in fact, several members of the committee directly appealed to the Justice Department to get involved.

Since then, we've learned a whole lot more about Justice Department subpoenas to former members of the Trump administration about investigations of fake electors, about investigation of fundraising schemes and, of course, the investigation of Mar-a-Lago. All that has happened since these hearings began, so it's a very different environment that the House committee is now coming in with its noncriminal investigation of what happened leading up to January 6.

SHIVARAM: All right. Let's leave it there for today. Andrea Bernstein, thank you for joining.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you.

SHIVARAM: I'm Deepa Shivaram. I cover politics.

JOHNSON: I'm Carrie Johnson, national justice correspondent.

SHIVARAM: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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