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March 1, 2024

Trump Lawyers Visit Justice Dept. as Classified Documents Inquiry Nears End

Trump Lawyers Visit Justice Dept. as Classified Documents Inquiry Nears End

Three lawyers representing the former president spent nearly two hours there after requesting a meeting to discuss their concerns about the department’s handling of the investigation.

By sending a letter to Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, former President Donald J. Trump was relying on a frequently used playbook, in which he suggests a judge or prosecutor is treating him unfairly by the act of investigating him.Credit…Sophie Park for The New York Times

Lawyers for former President Donald J. Trump met on Monday at the Justice Department with officials, including the special counsel Jack Smith, two weeks after requesting a meeting to discuss their concerns about Mr. Smith’s investigations into Mr. Trump, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The meeting did not include Attorney General Merrick B. Garland or Lisa O. Monaco, the deputy attorney general, and it is unclear what precise subjects were discussed. But the visit came amid indications that prosecutors in the special counsel’s office were approaching the end of their inquiry into the former president’s handling of classified documents. It also came at a time when Mr. Trump’s advisers have concluded that there might not be much more time to stave off charges, the people said.

The lawyers — James Trusty, John Rowley and Lindsey Halligan — left the Justice Department after nearly two hours. They declined to speak to reporters.

Shortly after their visit, Mr. Trump posted a message on his social media platform, Truth Social, suggesting that his legal team had at least discussed with him the possibility that he could be indicted.

“How can DOJ possibly charge me, who did nothing wrong,” Mr. Trump wrote in all capital letters.

Tim Parlatore, a lawyer who resigned last month from representing Mr. Trump, said that the former president’s legal team has harbored worries for some time about how prosecutors working for Mr. Smith have conducted the classified documents inquiry.

“I’ve long had concerns about the manner in which D.O.J. personnel conducted this investigation,” Mr. Parlatore said. “Regardless of what the evidence shows, if your prosecution team has engaged in misconduct, that’s a relevant factor to consider in making any charging decisions, particularly in a case with significant political magnitude.”

Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mr. Smith, declined to comment.

The meeting at the Justice Department came as prosecutors were still pursuing several avenues of inquiry in the documents case.

Prosecutors are expected to question a new witness in front of a federal grand jury sitting in Florida later this week, according to people familiar with the matter. At least one other witness has already appeared before the Florida grand jury, which is separate from the one that has been sitting for months in Washington. It is not clear why a second grand jury is taking testimony in Florida.

Prosecutors are also interested in an incident from October in which a worker drained a pool at Mar-a-Lago, causing water damage in a room that contained computer servers that held digital logs for the compound’s security cameras, according to a person familiar with the matter. The interest of prosecutors in the pool incident was reported earlier by CNN.

In recent weeks, Mr. Smith’s office has drilled down on the question of whether Mr. Trump and some of his aides sought to interfere with the government’s efforts to obtain security camera footage from Mar-a-Lago that could shed light on how documents were stored at the property and who had access to them.

Prosecutors have also been studying recorded audio notes made by a lawyer for Mr. Trump, M. Evan Corcoran. The notes pertain to a period last year when Mr. Corcoran was representing Mr. Trump after a subpoena from the Justice Department seeking the return of all classified materials in the former president’s possession.

The notes also encompassed a search that Mr. Corcoran undertook last June in response to the subpoena for any relevant records being kept at Mar-a-Lago. Mr. Corcoran was forced to turn over the notes after prosecutors convinced a federal judge that they had sufficient evidence of a crime to pierce attorney-client privilege, which typically would shield such material from scrutiny.

In a one-page letter from Mr. Trump’s lawyers to Mr. Garland, which Mr. Trump posted on his Truth Social account on May 23, the lawyers did not cite any specific complaints by his legal team, but instead broadly asserted that Mr. Trump had been treated unfairly by the Justice Department through the investigations led by Mr. Smith. Along with the classified documents case, prosecutors under Mr. Smith are also scrutinizing efforts by Mr. Trump and his aides to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

The letter to Mr. Garland was an abbreviated version of a longer one that contained a more detailed account of the concerns by Mr. Trump’s lawyers, according to two people familiar with the matter. Those included the ways in which grand juries have been used in the special counsel’s investigations and attempts to strong-arm defense lawyers involved in the cases, the people said.

Mr. Trusty, who worked at the Justice Department for more than two decades, knows Mr. Smith well: The two worked with each other a decade ago, when Mr. Trusty was a high-ranking prosecutor in the department’s criminal division and Mr. Smith was the head of the public integrity unit.

The Trump legal team’s visit to the Justice Department, first reported by CBS News, came as signs have emerged that Mr. Smith could soon make a decision about whether to seek charges in the documents case. The status of his other line of inquiry, into Mr. Trump’s efforts to reverse his election loss and how they contributed to the assault on the Capitol by his supporters on Jan. 6, 2021, remains less clear.

Mr. Trump expects to face charges in the documents investigation, according to people who have spoken to him, although that does not mean that he has been assured that charges are pending.

Prosecutors said in legal documents last year that they were investigating Mr. Trump’s handling of classified documents that he took with him when he left office and whether he obstructed the government’s efforts to retrieve them. He voluntarily returned two batches of documents last year, and F.B.I. agents retrieved more in a search in August of Mar-a-Lago, his private club and residence in Florida.

In his Truth Social post, Mr. Trump compared his case with that of President Biden, who was also found to have had classified documents in his possession from his time as vice president and who is also under scrutiny by a special counsel. Mr. Trump also mentioned the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.

The initial letter from his lawyers to Mr. Garland was directly confrontational, accusing officials at the Justice Department of showing favoritism to Mr. Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, who is under criminal investigation by the department.

By sending the letter, Mr. Trump was relying on a frequently used playbook, in which he suggests a judge or a prosecutor is treating him unfairly by the act of investigating him.

Under Justice Department regulations, Mr. Garland would play only a limited role in whether Mr. Smith decides to bring charges against Mr. Trump.

An attorney general can overrule a special counsel in a specific circumstance: if Mr. Garland were to determine that the prosecutor’s action would be “so inappropriate or unwarranted under established departmental practices that it should not be pursued.” Mr. Garland must also disclose that to Congress and explain any such intervention when the special counsel’s inquiry ends.

William K. Rashbaum contributed reporting.

Alan Feuer covers extremism and political violence. He joined The Times in 1999. @alanfeuer

Maggie Haberman is a senior political correspondent and the author of “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America.” She was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on President Trump’s advisers and their connections to Russia. @maggieNYT

Glenn Thrush covers the Department of Justice. He joined The Times in 2017 after working for Politico, Newsday, Bloomberg News, the New York Daily News, the Birmingham Post-Herald and City Limits. @GlennThrush

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