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Unsealed court records offer new insight into Trump classified documents probe

Trump classified documents trial postponed
Trump classified documents trial postponed indefinitely 04:02

Washington — A trove of newly unsealed documents related to the federal probe into former President Donald Trump's handling of classified information sheds light on the secret grand jury investigation that preceded the charges against him and the sealed proceedings that have taken place since he was indicted. 

The documents confirmed Tuesday that federal agents suspected that the former president might have sought to impede the probe in ways not previously acknowledged by prosecutors and that documents with classified markings were recovered from Trump's Florida bedroom in the months after the FBI searched his Mar-a-Lago resort. They also revealed a once-confidential legal battle between defense attorneys who alleged investigatorial misconduct, and a Justice Department standing by its probe. 

Special counsel Jack Smith charged the former president with 40 federal counts tied to his alleged unlawful retention of national defense information — documents with classified markings that deal with topics ranging from nuclear capabilities to military policy — and obstruction of the federal investigation into his handling of sensitive government records. Trump and his co-defendants, aide Walt Nauta and former employee Carlos de Oliveira, all pleaded not guilty,  and the former president has criticized the probe. 

The 2023 federal indictment against Trump alleged he sought to impede investigators by making false representations to his attorneys. Prosecutors also said Nauta and de Oliveira allegedly engaged in an unsuccessful scheme to push a Mar-a-Lago IT worker to delete security camera footage. 

But in a 2023 judicial opinion that was unsealed Tuesday, former Chief Judge Beryl Howell of the federal district court in Washington, D.C., wrote it was "likely" Trump had gone further than allegedly misleading his attorneys, possibly "instructing his agents to avoid the surveillance cameras he then understood to have been deputized by the government." 

Howell detailed numerous instances in which the former president, his attorneys, and his aides reacted to federal requests for information about any documents with classified markings from Trump's time in the White House located at his Florida resort after his presidency ended. 

In June 2022, a Washington, D.C. grand jury subpoenaed the security camera footage at Mar-a-Lago, information that was later relayed to Trump over the phone by his then-attorney, Evan Corcoran. 

"The government contends that this conversation furthered a different stage of the former President's ongoing scheme to foil the government's attempts to retrieve all classified-marked documents responsive to the subpoena," the judge wrote. 

Shortly after Trump's call with Corcoran about the subpoena, according to the judge, an unnamed witness, whose conduct matches that of Nauta, "rearranged his travel schedule, choosing to fly to Florida on June 25, 2022, instead of Illinois with the former president as previously scheduled." 

According to the judge's recounting of events, government prosecutors suspected Nauta's change in travel was part of Trump's "attempts to ensure that any subsequent movement of the boxes back to the storage room could occur off camera." 

"The government has provided sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the June 24, 2022 phone call may have furthered the former president's efforts to obstruct the government's investigation," Howell wrote. 

The judge's widely-reported opinion in 2023 was a major turning point in the special counsel's probe into Trump's conduct as she took the relatively unusual step of piercing attorney-client privilege by compelling Corcoran to testify before a grand jury about his interaction with Trump. It was released for the first time publicly on Tuesday confirmed much of what was previously reported.

Although the standard of proof in the grand jury proceedings was much lower for prosecutors than that of a jury trial, Howell wrote that because Trump might have used his attorney in furtherance of an alleged crime, the privilege between him and Corcoran could not apply. 

At the time, CBS News reported Howell also ruled prosecutors could use voice memos and notes from Corcoran's time as the former president's attorney, despite challenges under the same attorney-client privilege. 

In February, Trump's legal team asked the federal judge overseeing the criminal case, Aileen Cannon, to dismiss the charges and suppress evidence in part based upon what they argued was an erroneous decision by Howell. That motion for dismissal was unsealed Tuesday, too, after Cannon ordered much of the record unsealed with redactions. 

Cannon has yet to rule on whether to grant some of Trump's efforts to dismiss the indictment. A trial was set to begin this month, but Cannon indefinitely postponed its start, citing issues surrounding pre-trial motions and the use of classified evidence in proceedings. 

Howell's 2023 opinion also detailed the searches by Trump's attorneys that were conducted after August 2022, when the FBI conducted its court-authorized search of Mar-a-Lago, for additional documents potentially covered by a grand jury subpoena for records bearing classification markings issued in May 2022.

In 2022, CBS News reported Trump's attorneys handed over to investigators other documents they had recovered after hiring an outside firm to conduct searches of all of Trump's properties for any classified documents 

Two records were discovered in November of that year in a box in a storage unit located in West Palm Beach, Florida, that was leased by the General Services Administration, according to the filing.

A box with four more records with classification markings was discovered in a closet at Mar-a-Lago in mid-December 2022, Howell wrote, referencing reports included with a certification of compliance filed by Trump's post-presidency office. Those documents were part of a response to the May 2022 grand jury subpoena and "contained markings at the Secret level," according to the court filing.

Trump's office turned over to the FBI the entire box that contained the four documents on Jan. 5, 2023, as well as two additional documents that should have been handed over after  the May 2022 subpoena: "one empty folder and another mostly empty folder marked 'Classified Evening Summary,'" which were found in Trump's bedroom at Mar-a-Lago, according to Howell's opinion.

"Notable, no excuse is provided as to how the former president could miss the classified-marked documents found in his own bedroom at Mar-a-Lago," the judge wrote.

One of those attorneys, former Trump defense team member Timothy Parlatore, later sat for a grand jury interview to attest to the search 

That grand jury deposition was also the subject of allegations by the former president of prosecutorial misconduct. A portion of the interview was also unsealed on Tuesday in which a prosecutor on Smith's team questioned Parlatore about his attorney-client privilege with his client, Trump. 

"If the former President's so cooperative, why hasn't he allowed you to share his conversations with the Grand Jury today," the prosecutor asked, according to the page of transcript that was released Tuesday. 

"Are we really doing this," Parlatore responded. 

That transcript was unsealed as part of an exhibit to a filing by Trump's legal team accusing Smith's team of engaging in prosecutorial misconduct. The former president filed the motion in February under seal, and Cannon released them on the public docket Tuesday. 

In the February filing, Trump's team alleged the Justice Department improperly worked with the National Archives and the Biden White House to bring the charges, and later "abused the grand jury process." The allegations, made out of public view, amounted to what Trump's lawyers argued were grounds for dismissal. 

Smith's team, however, defended their conduct and rejected Trump's allegations, writing in March, "This case has been investigated and prosecuted in full compliance with all applicable constitutional provisions, statutes, rules, regulations, and policies." 

"There has been no prosecutorial misconduct." 

The documents were unsealed just as Nauta is set to appear in Cannon's courtroom on Wednesday. He has alleged the Justice Department engaged in selective prosecution by bringing the charges against him because he opted not to cooperate in the probe. Smith's team has opposed that assertion and Cannon is set to hear arguments from both sides. 

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