Attorneys for Donald Trump went to the Justice Department on Monday morning to make their case that the government should not charge the former president in connection with his possession of classified documents after leaving office, according to people familiar with the matter.
The Trump lawyers at the meeting were Lindsey Halligan, John Rowley and James Trusty, according to people familiar with the matter, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a closed-door proceeding. All three lawyers left the Justice Department just before noon, without speaking to reporters. The Justice Department personnel at the meeting included special counsel Jack Smith, but not Attorney General Merrick Garland or Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, these people said.
A reporter for CBS News first spotted the Trump lawyers walking into the building.
In late May, Rowley and Trusty sent a letter to Garland asking for a meeting to discuss what they call the unfair treatment of Trump by Smith, who is leading the probe. They and Halligan – along with Timothy Parlatore, an attorney who has since left Trump’s legal team – sent a much more detailed letter to members of Congress in late April saying the classified-documents case should be investigated administratively, not as a criminal matter.
It is not unusual for lawyers for high-profile defendants to seek an audience with senior Justice Department officials toward the end of a federal criminal investigation. But it would be uncommon for such meetings to take place with the attorney general, the nation’s top law enforcement official. Instead, they would usually be held with the chief of whichever Justice Department division is handling an investigation and potential prosecution, or sometimes the deputy attorney general.
And in Trump’s case, a meeting with the attorney general would be even more unusual because the investigation is being led by Smith, whose special counsel appointment gives him greater autonomy than other prosecutors in the Justice Department. Under department regulations, the attorney general may overrule the special counsel only if the special counsel has failed to follow Justice Department policies and practices.
Smith was appointed to lead the case in November, after Trump launched his 2024 bid for president. His team of federal prosecutors is investigating whether Trump or those close to him mishandled classified documents the former president kept after leaving office, or obstructed government efforts to retrieve them.
A grand jury has been hearing testimony from dozens of witnesses in recent months at the federal courthouse in downtown Washington. Investigators also have surveillance video showing boxes of documents being moved at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida residence and private club, and an audio recording of Trump talking about having an apparently classified document in his possession.
The classified documents case is one of four criminal probes involving the former president. Smith is separately investigating the conduct of Trump and his inner circle in connection to efforts to block results of the 2020 presidential election. The district attorney in Fulton County, Ga., is doing the same. And Trump has been indicted in New York on charges of falsifying business records connected to hush money payments during the 2016 election.
Trump has denied wrongdoing in each case. After Monday’s meeting ended, Trump posted on social media, “HOW CAN DOJ POSSIBLY CHARGE ME, WHO DID NOTHING WRONG, WHEN NO OTHER PRESIDENTS WERE CHARGED… THE GREATEST WITCH HUNT OF ALL TIME!”
In the April letter to U.S. lawmakers, Trump’s lawyers laid out their argument for why Trump should not be charged. They said that White House practices for handling classified information, across multiple administrations, differ so much from how other parts of the government handle national secrets that the Mar-a-Lago case should be handled as a civil matter, not a criminal one.
The examination of Trump’s retention of classified documents after leaving the White House dates back more than two years. It began with the National Archives and Records Administration, which spent months asking Trump to return of what it suspected were presidential records – historical documents that are government property, and that were not transferred to the archives when Trump’s term ended.
Fifteen boxes of papers from Mar-a-Lago were sent to the archives in early 2022. When archives officials opened the boxes, they found more than 100 classified documents scattered among the various items. That led to questions about whether Trump had more classified papers at his Florida home. Trump’s legal team handed another 38 documents last June in response to a grand jury subpoena. But an FBI search of Mar-a-Lago two months later turned up more than 100 additional documents and items marked classified, even though the subpoena had demanded the return of any such material.
In recent weeks, Smith’s team has asked archives officials to finish gathering and sending over a separate tranche of government documents that were the subject of a different subpoena. That subpoena, to the archives, sought documents regarding the Trump administration’s classification and declassification practices, according to a person familiar with the request, who also spoke on the condition on anonymity in order to discuss it. The request included classification training logs, any materials related to safeguarding sensitive documents in the Trump White House, decisions made regarding classification policy and more, this person added. The archives has already turned over thousands of documents to the Justice Department, the person said, and is continuing to produce them on a rolling basis as quickly as possible.