WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court on Wednesday directed a lawyer for Donald Trump to turn over to prosecutors documents in the investigation into the former president’s retention of classified documents at his Florida estate.
The order was reflected in a brief online notice by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The case is sealed, and none of the parties in the dispute are mentioned by name.
But the details appear to correspond with a closed-door fight before a lower court judge over whether M. Evan Corcoran could be forced to provide documents or give grand jury testimony in the Justice Department special counsel probe into whether Trump mishandled top-secret information at Mar-a-Lago.
Last week, Beryl Howell, the outgoing chief judge of the U.S. District Court, directed Corcoran to answer additional questions before the grand jury. He had appeared weeks earlier before the federal grand jury investigating the Mar-a-Lago matter, but had invoked attorney-client privilege to avoid answering certain questions.
Though attorney-client privilege shields lawyers from being forced to share details of their conversations with clients before prosecutors, the Justice Department can get around that if it can convince a judge that a lawyer’s services were used in furtherance of a crime — a principle known in the law as the “crime-fraud” exception.
Howell ruled in the Justice Department’s favor shortly before stepping aside as chief judge on Friday, according to a person familiar with the matter. That ruling was subsequently appealed, and the court records show the dispute before the federal appeals panel concerned an order that was issued last Friday by Howell.
The three-judge panel that issued the decision include Cornelia Pillard, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, and J. Michelle Childs and Florence Pan, both appointees of President Joe Biden. The order came just hours after the court imposed tight deadlines on both sides to file written briefs making their case.
A lawyer for Corcoran did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment on Wednesday, and a lawyer for Trump declined to comment on the sealed order.
Corcoran is regarded as relevant to the investigation in part because last year he drafted a statement to the Justice Department asserting that a “diligent search” for classified documents had been conducted at Mar-a-Lago in response to a subpoena. Months later, though, FBI agents searched the home with a warrant and found roughly 100 additional documents with classified markings.
The Justice Department is investigating whether Trump or anyone in his orbit obstructed its efforts to recover all the classified documents, which included top-secret material, from his home.
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