Washington, D.C. In a sealed order issued on Wednesday, a federal appeals court ordered a Donald Trump attorney to hand over to prosecutors any materials related to the inquiry into the former president’s retention of sensitive records at his Florida resort.
The decision is a major victory for the Justice Department. It has spent months investigating the storage of secret papers at Mar-a-Lago and why Trump and his aides rejected federal requests to hand them up. According to this, the court has agreed with the prosecution’s case, which was made behind closed doors, that Trump was employing his legal counsel to facilitate a crime.
A three-judge panel from the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit published a short internet notice that reflected the decision. None of the parties to the dispute are identified by name, and the case is sealed.
The specifics, however, seem to line up with a covert dispute between Trump’s legal team and a lower court judge over whether M. Evan Corcoran could be compelled to turn over documents or testify before a grand jury in the Justice Department special counsel investigation into whether Trump improperly handled top-secret information at Mar-a-Lago.
Because Corcoran wrote a statement to the Justice Department last year claiming that a “diligent search” for classified papers had been done at Mar-a-Lago in response to a subpoena, it is thought that Corcoran is pertinent to the inquiry. That assertion was incorrect since FBI investigators weeks later executed a search order at the residence and discovered about 100 more marked-classified documents.
In the fall of last year, another Trump attorney, Christina Bobb, disclosed to investigators that Corcoran had written the letter and had asked her to sign it as a designated custodian of Trump’s records.
Suppose Trump or anybody in his sphere hindered the Justice Department’s efforts to retrieve all the classified materials, including top-secret material, from his house. In that case, it is the subject of an inquiry conducted by special counsel Jack Smith and his prosecutors. Charges have not yet been brought. A grand jury investigation into hush money payments in New York and inquiries in Atlanta and Washington about Trump’s attempts to overturn election results are among the many legal dangers he confronts. The New York case is almost finished and moving toward an indictment.
Beryl Howell, the departing chief judge of the U.S. District Court, gave Corcoran new questions to address before the grand jury last week. He had testified before the federal grand jury looking into the Mar-a-Lago case a few weeks before. Still, he had cited the attorney-client privilege to avoid answering some questions.
Even though the attorney-client privilege protects lawyers from being required to divulge information about their conversations with clients to prosecutors, the Justice Department can circumvent this protection if it can persuade a judge that a lawyer’s services were used to further a crime, a legal doctrine known as the “crime-fraud” exception.
According to a person familiar with the situation who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity and was not authorized to discuss a secret hearing, Howell decided to favor the Justice Department just before resigning as chief judge on Friday. The decision was later appealed, and according to court documents, the debate before the federal appeals panel involved Howell’s order last Friday.
In addition to J. Michelle Childs and Florence Pan, appointed by President Joe Biden, the three-judge panel that made the ruling included Cornelia Pillard, a choice of former President Barack Obama. The order was issued shortly after the court set strict deadlines for both parties to submit written briefs outlining their arguments.
A lawyer for Trump declined to comment on the sealed order, while a lawyer for Corcoran did not immediately respond to a call requesting comment on Wednesday.