Trump’s Legal Team Scrambles to Find an Argument

The lawyers representing the former president in the investigation into his handling of classified documents have tried out an array of defenses as they seek to hold off the Justice Department.

Send any friend a story

As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.



By Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush

On May 25, one of former President Donald J. Trump’s lawyers sent a letter to a top Justice Department official, laying out the argument that his client had done nothing illegal by holding onto a trove of government materials when he left the White House.

The letter, from M. Evan Corcoran, a former federal prosecutor, represented Mr. Trump’s initial defense against the investigation into the presence of highly classified documents in unsecured locations at his members-only club and residence, Mar-a-Lago. It amounted to a three-page hodgepodge of contested legal theories, including Mr. Corcoran’s assertion that Mr. Trump possessed a nearly boundless right as president to declassify materials and an argument that one law governing the handling of classified documents does not apply to a president.

Mr. Corcoran asked the Justice Department to present the letter as “exculpatory” information to the grand jury investigating the case.

Government lawyers found it deeply puzzling. They included it in the affidavit submitted to a federal magistrate in Florida in their request for the search warrant they later used to recover even more classified materials at Mar-a-Lago — to demonstrate their willingness to acknowledge Mr. Corcoran’s arguments, a person with knowledge of the decision said.

As the partial release of the search warrant affidavit on Friday, including the May 25 letter, illustrated, Mr. Trump is going into the battle over the documents with a hastily assembled team. The lawyers have offered up a variety of arguments on his behalf that have yet to do much to fend off a Justice Department that has adopted a determined, focused and so far largely successful legal approach.

“He needs a quarterback who’s a real lawyer,” said David I. Schoen, a lawyer who defended Mr. Trump in his second Senate impeachment trial. Mr. Schoen called it “an honor” to represent Mr. Trump, but said it was problematic to keep lawyers “rotating in and out.”

Often tinged with Mr. Trump’s own bombast and sometimes conflating his powers as president with his role as a private citizen, the legal arguments put forth by his team sometimes strike lawyers not involved in the case as more about setting a political narrative than about dealing with the possibility of a federal prosecution.

“There seems to be a huge disconnect between what’s actually happening — a real live court case surrounding a real live investigation — and what they’re actually doing, which is treating it like they’ve treated everything else, recklessly and thoughtlessly,” Chuck Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney and F.B.I. official, said of Mr. Trump’s approach. “And for an average defendant on an average case, that would be a disaster.”

Mr. Trump’s team has had a few small procedural wins. On Saturday, a federal judge in Florida signaled that she was inclined to support Mr. Trump’s request for a special master to review the material seized by the government in the search of Mar-a-Lago on Aug. 8.

It is not clear how much the appointment of a special master would slow or complicate the government’s review of the material. Mr. Trump’s team has suggested that it would be a first step toward challenging the validity of the search warrant; but it also gives the Justice Department, which is expected to respond this week, an opportunity to air new details in public through their legal filings.

Takeaways From the Affidavit Used in the Mar-a-Lago Search


Takeaways From the Affidavit Used in the Mar-a-Lago Search


The release on Aug. 26 of a partly redacted affidavit used by the Justice Department to justify its search of former President Donald J. Trump’s Florida residence included information that provides greater insight into the ongoing investigation into how he handled documents he took with him from the White House. Here are the key takeaways:

Takeaways From the Affidavit Used in the Mar-a-Lago Search


The government tried to retrieve the documents for more than a year. The affidavit showed that the National Archives asked Mr. Trump as early as May 2021 for files that needed to be returned. In January, the agency was able to collect 15 boxes of documents. The affidavit included a letter from May 2022 showing that Trump’s lawyers knew that he might be in possession of classified materials and that the Justice Department was investigating the matter.

Takeaways From the Affidavit Used in the Mar-a-Lago Search


The material included highly classified documents. The F.B.I. said it had examined the 15 boxes Mr. Trump had returned to the National Archives in January and that all but one of them contained documents that were marked classified. The markings suggested that some documents could compromise human intelligence sources and that others were related to foreign intercepts collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Takeaways From the Affidavit Used in the Mar-a-Lago Search


Prosecutors are concerned about obstruction and witness intimidation. To obtain the search warrant, the Justice Department had to lay out possible crimes to a judge, and obstruction of justice was among them. In a supporting document, the Justice Department said it had “well-founded concerns that steps may be taken to frustrate or otherwise interfere with this investigation if facts in the affidavit were prematurely disclosed.”

Some of the Trump lawyers’ efforts have also appeared ineffective or misdirected. Mr. Corcoran, in his May 25 letter, made much of Mr. Trump’s powers to declassify material as president, and cited a specific law on the handling of classified material that he said did not apply to a president. The search warrant, however, said federal agents would be seeking evidence of three potential crimes, none of which relied on the classification status of the documents found at Mar-a-Lago; the law on the handling of classified material cited by Mr. Corcoran in the letter was not among them.

Two lawyers who are working with Mr. Trump on the documents case — Mr. Corcoran and Jim Trusty — have prosecutorial experience with the federal government. But the team was put together quickly.

Mr. Trusty was hired after Mr. Trump saw him on television, people close to the former president have said. Mr. Corcoran came in during the spring, introduced by another Trump adviser during a conference call in which Mr. Corcoran made clear he was willing to take on a case that many of Mr. Trump’s other advisers were seeking to avoid, people briefed on the discussion said.

Source: Read Full Article