One of former President Donald J. Trump’s attorneys wrote a letter to a high-ranking official at the Justice Department on May 25. In it, he argued that Trump had done nothing wrong by keeping a trove of federal records after he left office.
Mr. Trump’s initial argument against the probe into the existence of highly secret papers in unprotected areas at his members-only club and estate, Mar-a-Lago, came in the form of a letter from M. Evan Corcoran, a former federal prosecutor. The three-page memo was a jumbled mess of conflicting legal ideas, such as Mr. Corcoran’s claim that Mr. Trump had an almost unlimited power as president to declassify files and an argument that one regulation governing the handling of classified documents does not apply to a president.
Mr. Corcoran requested that the letter be presented to the grand jury investigating the matter as “exculpatory” evidence.
A lot of government lawyers were baffled by it. According to a source familiar with the matter, it was included in the affidavit presented to a federal magistrate in Florida in support of the search warrant ultimately used to retrieve even more classified data from Mar-a-Lago.
Mr. Trump is heading into the battle over the documents with a hastily assembled team, as seen by the partial release of the search warrant affidavit on Friday, which included the May 25 letter. His legal team has presented a number of different arguments on his side, but they haven’t been able to overcome the Justice Department’s concentrated, dedicated, and thus far successful legal strategy.
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The team representing Mr. Trump has managed to secure a few minor procedural victories. A federal judge in Florida gave indications on Saturday that she could agree with Mr. Trump’s request for a special master to assess the evidence collected in the August 8 search of Mar-a-Lago.
There have been indications that some of Trump’s legal team’s efforts have been in vain or misplaced. In his letter dated May 25, Mr. Corcoran made much of Mr. Trump’s ability to declassify material as president, pointing to a specific statute on the handling of classified material that he claimed did not apply to a president. However, the search warrant stated that federal agents would be looking for evidence of three potential crimes, none of which relied on the classification status of the documents found at Mar-a-Lago; the law on the handling of classified material cited by Mr. Corcoran in the letter was not one of them.
Mr. Corcoran and Jim Trusty, two of Mr. Trump’s lawyers working on the documents lawsuit, had both previously worked as federal prosecutors. The crew, though, was assembled rapidly.
According to those close to the former president, Mr. Trusty was hired after Trump saw him on television. It was reported that Mr. Corcoran was brought in during the spring by another Trump adviser during a conference call in which Mr. Corcoran made it obvious he was willing to take on a matter that many of Mr. Trump’s other advisers were attempting to avoid.
Mr. Trump has always dictated to his lawyers, but since Mr. Corcoran has joined the team, the legal papers in various cases read like campaign rally speeches. The ex-president has a history of treating judicial proceedings as political disputes, and his best defense in this case would be the 74 million people who voted for him in 2020.
After advocating for Mr. Trump’s assertions that the election was stolen from him, which have been rejected by dozens of courts, Mr. Epshteyn has risen to the position of “in-house counsel” for Mr. Trump, helping to construct the current legal team.
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During the Aug. 8 search, the F.B.I. uncovered other documents in that area and also on the floor of a closet in Mr. Trump’s office, people briefed on the situation said.
Mr. Trump and a tiny number among his present aides insist he was entitled to keep documents he stole from the White House, that he had already declassified them, or that they were packed up and relocated by the General Services Administration, a statement categorically contradicted by that government agency.
According to many who know him well, President Trump does not view Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in his official capacity as the main law enforcement officer of the United States, but rather as a political opponent with whom he can engage in a tug-of-war over the level of public outrage.
After Mr. Garland announced his intention to unseal the search warrant, an intermediary for Mr. Trump contacted a Justice Department official to relay a message that the former president wanted to bargain, as if he were still a New York developer.
A Justice Department spokesperson refused to comment on whether or not the message was relayed to Mr. Garland, but an official said that the communication left the department’s upper management confused and they had no idea what Mr. Trump was attempting to accomplish.