Justice Department asks judge to despise Trump team over Mar-a-Lago case

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Prosecutors have ordered a federal judge to keep Donald Trump in office in contempt of court for failing to fully comply with a May subpoena to return all classified documents in his possession, according to people familiar with the matter – a sign how controversial the private talks were whether the ex-president still has any secret papers.

In recent days, Justice Department attorneys have asked US District Judge Beryl A. Howell to treat Trump’s office with contempt, according to the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sealed trials. But the judge has not yet held a hearing or ruled on the request, they said.

The request comes after months of growing frustration by the Justice Department with Trump’s team — frustration that grew in June after the former president’s attorneys assured that a diligent search for classified documents had been conducted at his Mar-a-Lago club and residence. But the FBI gathered evidence that suggested — and later confirmed through a court-authorized search — that there were many more left.

One of the key areas of disagreement revolves around the Trump legal team’s repeated refusal to appoint a custodian of records to sign a document confirming that all classified materials have been returned to the federal government, according to two of those people. The Justice Department has repeatedly requested unequivocal affidavits from Trump’s team that all of these documents were returned, and Trump’s team has been unwilling to designate a records custodian to sign such a statement while certifying that it is returning documents Has.

The exact wording of the submission could not be determined as it remains classified. Trump is under investigation for three possible crimes: misuse of classified documents, obstruction, and destruction of government records.

Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said the former president’s attorneys “continue to be cooperative and transparent.” He added: “This is a political witch hunt like no other in this country.”

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A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment.

Trump’s team has searched a number of his other properties over the past few weeks, in response to concerns from the Justice Department and orders from the judge, and turned over two items with classified classification to the government. Trump’s advisers told the FBI the items were found in a warehouse used by the former president in West Palm Beach, Florida. Other Trump properties searched in recent weeks include his Bedminster golf course in New Jersey and his Trump Tower home and office in Manhattan. People familiar with these private company searches say no classified documents were found at those locations.

Trump’s side has taken the position that such a request is unreasonable — that no attorney could in good faith sign such a blanket certificate, or advise a client to do so, rather than certifying that a search of a particular location was completed in good faith. Some of Trump’s attorneys are also reluctant to make an affidavit based solely on Trump’s word, said two people familiar with the matter.

The government’s request for a declaration of contempt underscores the fundamental suspicion that has existed since the spring between the government, which is trying to retrieve sensitive documents, and a former president whose answers have proven untrustworthy. This distrust has led to a legal impasse on sealed papers over what constitutes a full classified paper search.

When the administration first issued a subpoena for documents with classified markings in May, the official recipient of that subpoena was the former president’s Records Depositary’s office — a role Trump’s team eventually shared with the administration was performed by attorney Christina Bobb .

In June, Bobb signed a certification that a diligent search had been conducted for such material, but the FBI gathered compelling evidence that it had not. The government obtained a court-approved search warrant in August that turned up 103 other classified documents in Mar-a-Lago that had not been handed over in response to the subpoena.

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But the core question still hasn’t been answered to the satisfaction of the Justice Department after months of back and forth: Is there any other classified information in the possession of the former president? Prosecutors, previously burned by empty promises, now want unqualified vows from someone in the official role of custodian of records that there are no longer classified skeletons in any of Trump’s closets.

Prosecutors have asked the judge to despise Trump’s side until one of his advisers is willing to take on the role of custodian of records responsible for fully answering the question, those people said. In recent months, Bobb has publicly stated that she is not doing any legal work related to the documents case, only providing advice to Trump’s PAC on election issues.

If the judge agreed, the most likely scenario would be a daily fine until the demands of the contempt motion are met. How high a fine is or who has to pay it is up to the judge.

It is not uncommon for large organizations to designate a records custodian who can assume formal legal responsibility for the company’s or entity’s files. In Trump’s case, the subpoena sent out in May was formally addressed to his office’s records clerk. No person was named in the request.

Prosecutors have said in court filings that after receiving the May subpoena, Trump’s attorneys asked for additional time to comply before agreeing to meet on June 3 to turn over files. The night before the scheduled meeting, Bobb — an attorney and former One America News host — was called by Trump adviser Boris Epshteyn and asked to join attorney Evan Corcoran in the meeting with Justice Department attorneys, according to a person familiar with the report, which she later gave to the FBI. Bobb had not met Corcoran before.

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At the June 3 meeting, Bobb delivered a letter to the Justice Department that began by stating that, according to people familiar with the interview, she was to act as the bureau records administrator for the purposes of the subpoena. The certificate with redacted name was included in the court records. The letter said Bobb was told that a “careful search” had been conducted of boxes “that were brought to Florida from the White House” and that all documents responding to the subpoena would be turned over.

The person close to Bobb said she told the FBI she was skeptical about the letter and insisted on adding a disclaimer saying it was based on information provided to her by others.

Last month, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to handle the investigation of the classified documents, as well as an investigation into Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election. In recent weeks, several Trump advisers have appeared before a grand jury to hear evidence in the classified case.

Stephen Ryan, a criminal defense attorney specializing in white-collar crime, said it is not usually difficult to determine who should serve as a custodian of records for a company. “In the normal course of business, if you’re a real business, you have records and custodians of those records to go back to,” he said. “It is the person who keeps the records as part of their day-to-day activities.”

In this case, however, there is no Trump representative who actually retained control of the records. “The department is actually asking for something that doesn’t exist,” he said. “This is an extraordinary problem that is factually relatively unique.”

At this point, he said, “nobody wants to put their head in the janitor’s noose.”

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