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Judge rules Trump lawyer must testify in document investigation

A federal judge has ruled that prosecutors overseeing the investigation into former President Donald J. Trump’s handling of classified documents can bypass claims of attorney-client privilege and force one of his lawyers to answer more questions before a grand jury, two people familiar with the case. he said Friday.

In making her decision, Judge Beryl A. Howell found that the government had reached the threshold for a special provision of the law known as the felony-fraud exception. That provision allows prosecutors to circumvent attorney-client privilege when they have reason to believe that legal advice or services have been used to further a crime.

The New York Times reported last month that prosecutors had asked Judge Howell to apply the felony and fraud exception to the grand jury testimony of M. Evan Corcoran, a lawyer who has represented Trump since last spring, when the document investigation began to heat up. Mr. Corcoran in recent months appeared before the grand jury and asserted attorney-client privilege while refusing to answer certain questions.

The attorney-client privilege is a fundamental legal principle designed to protect private communications between attorneys and their clients. Judge Howell’s ruling, issued under seal, that the felony-fraud exception applies in this case is important because it gives a federal judge’s nod to prosecutors’ contention that Mr. Corcoran’s legal work can used in the commission of a crime.

The ruling was previously reported by CNN.

It was not clear what crime prosecutors say may have been committed, or who may have committed it. But among the issues the Justice Department has been examining since last year is whether Trump or his associates obstructed justice by failing to comply with repeated demands to return a trove of government materials he took with him from the White House when he left the post. including hundreds of documents with classified marks.

A statement from Trump’s office attacked Judge Howell’s ruling.

“Any time prosecutors target lawyers, that is usually a good indication that their underlying case is very weak. If they had a real case, they wouldn’t need to play corrupt games with the Constitution,” the statement said.

“Every American has the right to consult with a lawyer and have candid discussions; this promotes compliance with the law,” the statement added. “We will fight the Department of Justice on this front and all others who endanger fundamental American rights and values.”

Last May, before Jack Smith took over the investigation as special counsel, federal prosecutors issued a subpoena for any classified documents still in Trump’s possession, a move taken after he voluntarily turned over an initial batch of records. to the National Archives which turned out to include nearly 200 classified documents.

In response to the subpoena, Mr. Corcoran met with federal investigators in June and provided them with another set of documents, more than 30 of which bore classification marks. He then drafted a statement for another attorney to deliver to the Justice Department saying that a “diligent search” had been conducted at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida club and residence, and that no further classified materials remained there. .

About three weeks after Mr. Corcoran’s meeting with investigators, federal prosecutors issued another subpoena, this one for surveillance footage from a camera near a storage room in Mar-a-Lago. Among the issues Smith’s office wants Corcoran to testify about is a phone call he had with Trump at the time the subpoena for the video was issued, according to a person familiar with the matter.

How Times reporters cover politics. We trust our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members can vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for political candidates or causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money or raising money for any political candidate or electoral cause.

Surveillance footage obtained through the subpoena showed at least one Trump aide moving boxes that had been stored in the storage room. That prompted prosecutors to step up their investigation and seek a search warrant for Mar-a-Lago.

In early August, FBI agents armed with the warrant descended on the property and made off with more than 100 additional classified documents. He sworn declaration filed by the Department of Justice to obtain the warrant said there was “probable cause to believe that evidence of obstruction” would be found in the search.

Now that Mr. Smith has obtained an injunction compelling Mr. Corcoran to testify, Mr. Corcoran can appear before the grand jury and answer their questions, or appear and invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. He did not respond to messages seeking comment Friday.

The Justice Department subpoenaed a large number of people close to Trump in the document investigation, from his advisers to former White House officials, his lawyers and Mar-a-Lago staff, according to several people familiar with the lawsuits. testimony.

The litigation surrounding Mr. Corcoran has been conducted, like all grand jury matters, in sealed filings and in closed-door hearings. It’s just one part of a broader effort by Trump’s lawyers and several of his former aides to assert various privileges to limit their testimony to grand juries investigating both the classified documents case and the former president’s role in trying to overturn the election. of 2020. .

Judge Howell has been handling these secret proceedings as chief judge of the Federal District Court in Washington. But he stepped down from that role Friday as part of a normal rotation and was replaced by a new head judgeJames E. Boasberg.

The Justice Department’s investigation into the Mar-a-Lago documents has taken on a new intensity since Mr. Smith took office. Officials have been trying to find out what people knew about the material in the boxes, according to people briefed on the matter.

For a time, investigators focused on one witness in particular, Waltine Nauta, a close personal aide to Trump who worked with him at the White House and later at Mar-a-Lago. Mr. Nauta was seen on camera moving boxes that had been kept in the storage area. Investigators also interviewed the groundskeeper who helped him move the boxes, according to two people briefed on the matter.

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