Donald Trump’s main lawyer involved in turning over classified-marked documents at the Mar-a-Lago resort to the justice department last year must provide additional testimony in the criminal investigation, a federal judge ruled on Friday, overriding his objections of attorney-client privilege .
The ruling marks a major moment in the investigation into Trump’s unauthorized retention of national security materials and obstruction of justice that could open up new avenues of information to the special counsel overseeing the matter.
In a sealed ruling, the chief US judge for the District of Columbia, Beryl Howell, found that the justice department had shown sufficient prima facie evidence that the legal advice Trump’s lawyer Evan Corcoran gave to the former president could have been used in furtherance of a crime.
The order from Howell granted some aspects – while denying other points – of the department’s motion to compel testimony from Corcoran on a range of subjects he discussed with Trump as prosecutors focus on his role in the obstruction part of the investigation.
Corcoran must narrowly testify about his communications with Trump about how to comply with a grand jury subpoena issued last May that demanded the return of any documents in his possession bearing classified markings, according to sources familiar with the matter.
The Trump legal team will seek a stay of the order pending an appeal, a lawyer for the former president confirmed to the Guardian. That could leave the issue unresolved for months given how long the US court of appeals in Washington DC – and then the US supreme court – can take to rule on cases.
“Whenever prosecutors target the attorneys, that’s usually a good indication that their underlying case is very weak,” a Trump spokesperson said. “If they had a real case, they wouldn’t need to play corrupt games with the constitution.
“We will fight the Department of Justice on this front and all others.”
But the momentous ruling represented a significant victory for the justice department in the case. And if it is upheld, Howell’s ruling could make Corcoran a crucial witness in the criminal investigation, and it could force him to testify against his client.
The obstruction part of the Trump investigation documents is centered on the former president’s incomplete compliance with a subpoena in May that demanded the return of any classified-marked documents in his possession. That was after documents he returned earlier to the National Archives included 200 that were classified.
In June, Corcoran searched Mar-a-Lago and produced about 30 documents with classified markings to the justice department and had another Trump lawyer, Christina Bobb, sign a certification that attested to compliance with the subpoena “based on the information provided to me” .
But, according to court filings, the justice department developed evidence that more documents which were marked as classified remained at the resort, along with “evidence of obstruction”. And when the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago, they found 101 documents marked as classified in a storage room and in Trump’s office.
Corcoran is among three Trump lawyers connected to the documents case who have recently appeared before federal grand jurors in Washington, the Guardian previously reported, in addition to Bobb and one of Trump’s civil lawyers, Alina Habba, who searched his office in an unrelated case.
Corcoran, however, declined to testify about his conversations with Trump relating to how they responded to the subpoena, including what steps they took to conduct a thorough search of Mar-a-Lago, citing attorney-client privilege protections that ordinarily shield such communications.