Former Trump officials must testify in 2020 election inquiry, judge says
March 24, 2023 Updated Sat., March 25, 2023 at 6:36 p.m.
FILE -- Former President Donald Trump, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, at a rally in Davenport, Iowa, on March 13, 2023. Trump is facing multiple investigations from both the federal and state level. (Desiree Rios/The New York Times) (DESIREE RIOS)
A federal judge has ruled that a number of former officials from President Donald Trump’s administration – including his former chief of staff, Mark Meadows – cannot invoke executive privilege to avoid testifying to a grand jury investigating Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
The recent ruling by Judge Beryl A. Howell paves the way for the former White House officials to answer questions from federal prosecutors, according to two people briefed on the matter.
Howell ruled on the matter in a closed-door proceeding in her role as chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Washington, a job in which she oversaw the grand juries taking testimony in the Justice Department’s investigations into Trump. Howell’s term as chief judge ended last week.
The existence of the sealed ruling was first reported by ABC News.
Trump’s lawyers had tried to rebuff the grand jury subpoenas issued to more than a half-dozen former administration officials in connection with the former president’s efforts to remain in office after his defeat at the polls. The lawyers argued that Trump’s interactions with the officials would be covered by executive privilege.
Prosecutors are likely to be especially eager to hear from Meadows, who refused to be interviewed by the House select committee that investigated the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Meadows was a central player in various efforts to help Trump reverse the election outcome in a number of contested states.
Before he stopped cooperating with the committee, Meadows provided House investigators with thousands of text messages that gave them a road map of events and people to interview. He has also appeared before a fact-finding grand jury in Fulton County, Georgia, investigating the efforts to overturn the election, according to the grand jury’s forewoman, who described him as not very forthcoming.
Meadows’ lawyer, George Terwilliger, did not respond to a phone call on Friday seeking comment.
Other officials whose grand jury testimony Howell compelled in her order vary in significance to the investigation, and in seniority. They include John McEntee, who served as Trump’s personnel chief and personal aide; Nick Luna, another personal aide; Robert C. O’Brien, who was national security adviser; Dan Scavino, who was a deputy chief of staff and social media director in the White House; John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence; Stephen Miller, Trump’s speechwriter and adviser; and Ken Cuccinelli, who served as acting deputy secretary of homeland security.
Word of the ruling came as the Justice Department pressed ahead in its parallel investigation into Trump’s handling of classified documents after leaving office and whether he obstructed the government’s efforts to reclaim them. The twin federal investigations are being led by Jack Smith, the special counsel who was appointed after Trump announced his latest candidacy in November.
In the documents case, one of the central witnesses, M. Evan Corcoran, a lawyer who represented Trump in the inquiry, appeared before a grand jury on Friday after both Howell and a federal appeals court in Washington rejected his attempts to avoid answering questions by asserting attorney-client privilege on behalf of Trump, according to two people familiar with the matter.
In making her ruling last week to force Corcoran to testify, Howell upheld the government’s request to invoke the crime-fraud exception, a provision of the law that allows prosecutors to work around attorney-client privilege if they have reason to believe that legal advice or services were used to further a crime. The judge also said that Corcoran would have to turn over some documents related to his representation of Trump.
Howell’s order exposed the continuing legal peril confronting Trump, as it noted that Smith’s team had made “a prima facie showing that the former president committed criminal violations,” according to people familiar with the decision.
Her order made clear that prosecutors have questions not just about what Trump told Corcoran as he prepared to respond to a grand jury subpoena seeking any remaining classified material in Trump’s possession, but who else may have influenced what Corcoran told Justice Department officials, according to people familiar with the ruling.
In December, another lawyer for Trump, Timothy Parlatore, also appeared in front of the grand jury, to answer questions about a subpoena prosecutors had issued in May seeking all classified material in the possession of the custodian of records for Trump’s presidential office.
Parlatore said on Friday that he had gone in front of the grand jury because at that point Trump’s office no longer had a custodian of records. He also said that he had been involved in several efforts to comply with the subpoena in the weeks and months after the FBI, acting on a search warrant in August, hauled away hundreds of classified documents from Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private club and residence in Florida.
Among the things that Parlatore said he discussed with the grand jury were additional searches he oversaw at the end of last year, of other properties belonging to Trump, including Trump Tower in New York; Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey; and a storage site in West Palm Beach, Florida.
During the search of the storage site, investigators found at least two more documents with classified markings.
During his grand jury testimony, Parlatore said he also mentioned an empty folder bearing the words “classified evening summary” that had remained on Trump’s bedroom night stand even after the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago.
He said prosecutors immediately drew up a subpoena for the folder, demanding its return.
“The DOJ is continuously stepping far outside the standard norms in attempting to destroy the long-accepted, long-held, constitutionally based standards of attorney-client privilege and executive privilege,” a Trump spokesperson said in a statement, saying the cases are political and that “there is no factual or legal basis or substance to any case against President Trump.”
Prosecutors in Smith’s office have also been pressing forward with seeking grand jury testimony in a separate investigation into Trump’s handling of classified documents after he left office.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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