The Justice Department has convinced a federal judge that former President Donald Trump used one of his defense attorneys in furtherance of a crime or fraud related to the existence of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, sources familiar with the matter told CNN.
The finding – part of a major ruling Friday from Judge Beryl Howell of the DC District Court – makes clear for the first time that the Justice Department is arguing it has evidence that Trump may have committed a crime. And Howell ruled that prosecutors met the burden to overcome Trump’s right to shield discussions with his lawyers normally protected under attorney-client privilege.
The evidence would likely be significant in the obstruction probe being pursued by special counsel Jack Smith’s team. It also underscores how critical the testimony of Trump’s defense lawyers would be in the federal grand jury investigation.
ABC News first reported the development.
The revelation comes as the former president continues to face a number of notable investigations and lawsuits, including a separate yearslong investigation into his alleged role in a scheme to pay hush money to an adult film star. There are signs that case is nearing an end and Trump and his advisers are awaiting a potential indictment.
Trump has not been charged in the documents case, but is still under investigation by the grand jury in Washington. Prosecutors had relied on surveillance videos in arguing their case to Howell, one source said.
A spokesman for the special counsel’s office did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.
The Justice Department is still seeking testimony from Trump defense attorney Evan Corcoran, after he cited attorney-client privilege, as well as from another Trump lawyer, Jennifer Little, CNN has learned.
CNN has reached out to Corcoran and Little for comment.
Corcoran’s critical testimony in the Mar-a-Lago classified documents investigation is now in the hands of the US DC Circuit Court of Appeals.
CNN was first to report the action at the DC Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday referred to in anonymized court records and confirmed by CNN, following Trump’s loss on Friday before Howell.
A three-judge panel – Judges Nina Pillard, Michelle Childs and Florence Pan – at the appeals court now is positioned to decide whether to put on hold a lower-court ruling that Corcoran must provide additional testimony to the grand jury about his conversations with Trump. Trump’s team has argued those conversations are covered by attorney-client privilege and should be shielded in the investigation.
Howell, in her sealed ruling, determined prosecutors were able to show Corcoran’s legal services were used in furtherance of a crime, so attorney-client privilege didn’t apply, sources told CNN.
What happens next is crucial because the Justice Department has successfully argued that Corcoran’s conversations with Trump would reveal Trump was trying to advance a crime – but the grand jury hasn’t yet heard from Corcoran directly about those conversations.
If the appeals court sides with the Justice Department, Corcoran could be forced to testify again to a federal grand jury within days, ushering the investigation into the handling of classified documents and obstruction of justice toward a conclusion.
The extremely tight deadlines – a turnaround essentially unheard of in this court – indicates the seriousness of the matter.
The DC Circuit judges also mentioned documents involved in the dispute, asking that Trump’s side “specify” them. The court order doesn’t explain any further what’s happened with documents. But Corcoran also was ordered to hand over a number of documents, including handwritten notes and notes transcribed of a verbal conversation.
Trump sent a statement to his supporters Tuesday night criticizing ABC and calling the details “illegally leaked false allegations.”
When Corcoran first testified to the grand jury in January, he was asked about what happened in the lead up to the August search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence.
Corcoran had drafted a statement in June 2022 that attested Trump’s team had done a “diligent search” of boxes moved from the White House to Florida and that all classified documents had been returned. Christina Bobb, the attorney who signed the letter, added the caveat, “to the best of my knowledge.”
After that, the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago and found hundreds of government records, including classified material, raising questions about the lawyer’s attestation.
This headline and story have been updated with additional reporting.
CNN’s Holmes Lybrand contributed to this report.