A federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday that a lawyer representing former President Donald J. Trump in the investigation into his handling of classified material had to answer a grand jury’s questions and give prosecutors documents related to his legal work.
The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia was a victory for the special counsel overseeing the investigation and followed Mr. Trump’s effort to stop the lawyer, M. Evan Corcoran, from handing over what are likely to be dozens of documents to investigators.
The behind-the-scenes fight shed new light on the efforts by prosecutors to assemble evidence about whether Mr. Trump committed a crime in defying the government’s efforts to reclaim classified materials he took after leaving the White House.
The litigation — all of which has taken place behind closed doors or under seal — centers on whether prosecutors can force Mr. Corcoran to provide information on who knew what about the continued presence of classified material at Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s residence and private club in Florida, after the government had demanded its return last spring.
In particular, prosecutors have been focused on a document that Mr. Corcoran drafted last spring stating that a “diligent search” had been conducted at Mar-a-Lago and that no further classified material remained there — an assertion that would be proved false. Prosecutors have been seeking to learn what Mr. Trump knew about that statement, according to people briefed on the matter.
Understand the Trump Documents Inquiry
The Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation into Donald Trump’s handling of classified files after he left office.
Special Counsel: Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Jack Smith, a longtime prosecutor, to take over the inquiry. Here is what Smith’s role entails.
Trump Lawyer: The special counsel’s investigation into Trump has prompted a pitched legal battle over whether prosecutors have sufficient evidence to force one of his lawyers to testify to a grand jury and provide documents related to his work for the former president.
Passing the Gavel: James Boasberg will take over from Beryl Howell as the chief judge of the Federal District Court in Washington, a post that plays a key role in the federal special counsel investigations into Trump’s handling of the documents and the events surrounding Jan. 6.
Comparison With Biden Case: The discovery of classified documents from President Biden’s time as vice president prompted comparisons to Trump’s hoarding of records. But there are key differences.
The case involves a balancing act between attorney-client privilege, which generally protects lawyers from divulging private communications with their clients to the government, and a special provision of the law known as the crime-fraud exception. That exception allows prosecutors to break through attorney-client privilege when they have reason to believe that legal advice or legal services have been used in furthering a crime, typically by the client.
The spat began last month when the office of the special counsel, Jack Smith, sought to pierce assertions of attorney-client privilege that Mr. Corcoran and Mr. Trump had made in the documents inquiry. In an initial appearance before a grand jury investigating the case, Mr. Corcoran had asserted the privilege as a way to limit the scope of the questions he would have to answer as well as the number of legal records he would have to turn over.
But in seeking to obtain as much information from Mr. Corcoran as it could, Mr. Smith’s office invoked the crime-fraud exception in a filing to Judge Beryl A. Howell, who sits in Federal District Court in Washington. Prosecutors working for Mr. Smith wanted Judge Howell to set the attorney-client privilege aside and compel Mr. Corcoran to give them what they wanted.
On Friday, Judge Howell issued a ruling saying that the government had indeed met the threshold to invoke the crime-fraud exception and that prosecutors had made a preliminary case that Mr. Trump had violated the law in the documents case.
Judge Howell’s finding that “the government had made a prima facie showing that the former president committed criminal violations” did not mean prosecutors necessarily had enough evidence to charge Mr. Trump. Rather, it was enough to justify setting aside attorney-client privilege and requiring Mr. Corcoran to divulge information about his interactions with Mr. Trump.
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As part of her decision, she ordered Mr. Corcoran to turn over most of the legal documents he had tried to withhold and return to the grand jury to more fully answer the prosecutors’ questions. Her order also outlined a half-dozen areas of inquiry that the Justice Department wants Mr. Corcoran to answer questions about.
But on Tuesday night, as Mr. Corcoran began preparing to comply with the judge’s order, lawyers for Mr. Trump asked the appeals court to stay the ruling as they sought to reverse parts or all of her decision. The appeals court granted an initial temporary stay of the ruling and set an unusually aggressive schedule for the case, telling Mr. Trump to file papers by midnight and the government to file a response by 6 a.m. on Wednesday.
The appeals court’s decision concerning Mr. Corcoran left open a lingering threat to the government’s case. While the court allowed Judge Howell’s ruling compelling Mr. Corcoran to provide information to prosecutors to stand for now, it also permitted the underlying appeal of the decision to move forward.
That move opened the possibility that if the appeals court — or the Supreme Court — ultimately ruled that the government’s arguments about the crime-fraud exception were wrong, prosecutors would be barred from using the information Mr. Corcoran had provided as evidence to seek any grand-jury indictment or in any trial.
Depending on the stage of any case, that could prove fatally damaging. Prosecutors will therefore have to weigh that risk in deciding whether to make any use of the evidence before the merits of the dispute are fully resolved.
Even though the case has now passed through two different courts and generated several dueling rounds of papers, it still remains unclear precisely what crime the government believes might have been committed — or who, other than or in addition to Mr. Trump, might have committed it.
Still, among the subjects that the Justice Department has been examining since last year is whether Mr. 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 upon leaving office, including hundreds of documents with classified markings.
In May, before Mr. Smith took over the investigation as a special counsel, federal prosecutors issued a subpoena for any classified documents still in Mr. Trump’s possession — after he voluntarily handed over an initial batch of records to the National Archives that included almost 200 classified documents.
In response to the subpoena, Mr. Corcoran met with federal investigators in June and gave them another set of documents, more than 30 of which carried classification markings.
In August, F.B.I. agents armed with a warrant searched Mar-a-Lago. The search yielded three classified documents in desks inside Mr. Trump’s office, with more than 100 documents in 13 boxes or containers with classification markings in the residence, including some at the most restrictive levels.
About three weeks after Mr. Corcoran’s meeting with investigators in June, federal prosecutors issued another subpoena — this one for surveillance footage from a camera near a storage room at Mar-a-Lago. Among the subjects that Mr. Smith’s office wants Mr. Corcoran to testify about is a phone call he had with Mr. Trump around the time that the subpoena for the video footage was issued, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Prosecutors are also interested in two men who were caught in the surveillance footage moving boxes from the storage room at Mar-a-Lago, according to two people familiar with the matter. One of the men was Waltine Nauta, a former White House aide who went to work for Mr. Trump in Florida. The other was a worker at Mar-a-Lago.
Alan Feuer covers extremism and political violence. He joined The Times in 1999. @alanfeuer
Ben Protess is an investigative reporter covering the federal government, law enforcement and various criminal investigations into former President Trump and his allies. @benprotess
Maggie Haberman is a senior political correspondent and the author of “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America.” She was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on President Trump’s advisers and their connections to Russia