A federal judge ruled Friday that prosecutors overseeing the investigation into former President Donald Trump's handling of classified documents can pierce assertions of attorney-client privilege and compel one of his lawyers to answer more questions before a grand jury, two people familiar with the matter said.
In making her ruling, Judge Beryl Howell found that the government had met the threshold for the crime-fraud exception, which allows prosecutors to work around attorney-client privilege when they have reason to believe that legal advice or legal services have been used in furthering a crime.
The New York Times reported last month that the office of the special counsel, Jack Smith, had asked Howell to apply the crime-fraud exception to the grand jury testimony of M. Evan Corcoran, a lawyer who has represented Trump since last spring, as the documents investigation began heating up. Corcoran appeared before the grand jury in February and asserted attorney-client privilege while declining to answer certain questions.
Howell's ruling, in a sealed proceeding, that the crime-fraud exception applies in this situation is important because it places the imprimatur of a federal judge on Smith's contention that Corcoran's legal work may have been used in the commission of a crime.
Among the subjects the Department of Justice has been examining since last year is whether Trump or his associates obstructed justice by failing to comply with repeated demands to return a trove of government material he took with him from the White House upon leaving office, including hundreds of documents with classified markings.
NEW CHIEF JUDGE
A new judge is poised to assume oversight of grand jury investigations concerning Trump, including the ongoing probe into classified documents found at his Florida estate.
U.S. District Judge James "Jeb" Boasberg was sworn in Friday as chief judge of the federal district court in Washington, D.C. That role will give Boasberg, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, oversight of grand jury matters as well as sealed disputes that have surfaced in inquiries involving Trump.
Boasberg is replacing Howell, who is also an Obama appointee. The chief judge position rotates on a seven-year basis.
The investigations have involved multiple sealed disputes, including a current fight over whether prosecutors can secure additional grand jury testimony from Corcoran.
Corcoran had invoked attorney-client privilege during an appearance before the grand jury weeks ago, but Smith's team has sought to question him again by invoking an exception to attorney-client privilege.
It was not clear if the dispute would be resolved before Boasberg takes over as chief judge.
Boasberg has served on the federal bench since 2012.
Law enforcement officials in New York are making security preparations for the possibility that Trump could be indicted in the coming weeks and appear in a Manhattan courtroom in an investigation examining hush money paid to women who alleged sexual encounters with him, four law enforcement officials said Friday.
There has been no public announcement of any timeframe for the grand jury's secret work, including any potential vote on whether to indict the ex-president.
The law enforcement officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said authorities are just preparing in case of an indictment. They described the conversations as preliminary and are considering security, planning and the practicalities of a potential court appearance by a former president.
The Manhattan district attorney's office and Trump's lawyer, Joseph Tacopina, had no comment. A message was left for court administrators.
The grand jury has been hearing from witnesses including former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, who says he orchestrated payments in 2016 to two women to silence them about sexual encounters they said they had with Trump a decade earlier.
Trump denies that the encounters occurred.
Prosecutors said the payments to the women amounted to impermissible, unrecorded gifts to Trump's election effort.
Cohen pleaded guilty, served prison time and was disbarred. Federal prosecutors have not charged Trump with any crime.
Information for this article was contributed by Alan Feuer and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times and by Eric Tucker, Colleen Long, Jennifer Peltz and Michael R. Sisak of The Associated Press.