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Federal judge found ‘strong evidence’ of crimes before Trump was charged in classified documents case

By Tierney Sneed, Katelyn Polantz, Holmes Lybrand and Hannah Rabinowitz, CNN

(CNN) — Months before Donald Trump was indicted for mishandling classified documents, a federal judge said that investigators had “strong evidence” that the former president “intended” to hide classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago resort, according to newly released court documents.

Judge Beryl Howell cited, among other things, the discovery of additional classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago months after the FBI’s search of the property in the summer of 2022. The records included a “mostly empty” folder marked as “Classified Evening Summary” that was found in the former president’s bedroom, as well as four other documents with classification markings found in his post-presidential office at the resort.

“Notably, no excuse is provided as to how the former president could miss the classified-marked documents found in his own bedroom at Mar-a-Lago,” Howell wrote in March 2023.

The ruling was among hundreds of pages of previously sealed filings that were publicly docketed Tuesday in the criminal classified documents case against Trump. Included as well were new images of Walt Nauta, Trump’s personal aide, moving boxes around Mar-a-Lago room before the a Trump attorney was to review the boxes for classified materials sought by a subpoena.

Prosecutors say Nauta moved boxes around as part of an alleged conspiracy to conceal classified material from federal investigators.

Nauta has been charged alongside Trump and Mar-a-Lago property manager Carlos De Oliveira in the case, facing charges of mishandling sensitive or classified materials and obstruction.  All three have pleaded not guilty.

The photos of Nauta, which appear to be screenshots of surveillance footage, are dated June 1, 2022 – shortly before the Trump attorney was slated to canvass the storage room for any documents with classified markings to be returned to the federal government.

The case against Trump, brought last summer, is currently in front of Judge Aileen Cannon in Fort Pierce, Florida. Cannon is a Trump appointee.

Judge said that Trump used his attorney as a ‘front man’ to obstruct probe

Trump’s defense team is seeking to throw out parts of the prosecutors’ case – including all the evidence seized from Mar-a-Lago and obtained from his former attorney Evan Corcoran, according to the filings in federal court in South Florida.

Trump’s team argues that the warrant for the search wasn’t valid because of the way an FBI agent described the agency’s thinking to a magistrate judge. They are also contesting Howell’s 2023 ruling ordering Corcoran to provide testimony and produce documents that he had previously withheld from the grand jury investigating the matter.

Howell, an appointee of Barack Obama, said at the time that prosecutors had “sufficient evidence to show that the former president” used Corcoran as “a ‘front m[a]n’ to obstruct the government’s investigation and perpetuate the former president’s unlawful retention of any classified documents contained in boxes transferred from the White House.”

Corcoran played a pivotal role in the investigation into the classified documents, as he was the attorney who was tasked with finding and producing documents with classified markings at Trump’s Florida resort. In the criminal case filed last year, prosecutors say there was conspiracy led by Trump to move boxes of government records from the storage room before Corcoran searched for it for classified materials.

Corcoran is referred to as “Person 18” in Howell’s ruling but can be identified based on what’s known about the case.

Among the topics Howell ordered Corcoran to testify about was a June 24, 2022, phone call he had with Trump – the same day investigators subpoenaed surveillance footage from Mar-a-Lago. She also ordered the production of 88 documents that had been withheld under attorney-client privilege.

Howell recounted Trump’s actions over the course of several months while the federal government sought to retrieve the sensitive documents taken from the White House.

Trump “deliberately curtailed his staff’s efforts to comply” with the National Archives’ initial efforts to retrieve the documents, she wrote.

“The former president’s misdirection of NARA was apparently a dress rehearsal for his actions in response to the May 11, 2022 subpoena,” Howell said.

Twenty-one of the 32 national security documents Trump is accused of criminally mishandling were in the former president’s possession August 8, 2022, the date of the Mar-a-Lago FBI search.

That means that Trump’s team in this newly available motion to suppress is seeking to cut out from the case those 21 documents–and thus their related charges–and the hundreds of other classified records around them, plus the part of the case accusing Trump of obstruction of justice that is built around Corcoran.

Guidelines for FBI’s search at Mar-a-Lago unsealed

Also unsealed Tuesday was a law enforcement document outlining how the FBI was authorized to search Mar-a-Lago.

The document, called a law enforcement operations order, explains what agents were permitted to bring with them when they searched Trump’s estate and how they were allowed to operate as part of the search. It also includes boilerplate language from the Justice Department manual about use of force, including the limited circumstances in which agents are authorized to use deadly force.

Though the language is standard and directly from the department’s manual, Trump quickly took to social media Tuesday to decry the 2022 document as having “authorized” deadly force.

“WOW! I just came out of the Biden Witch Hunt Trial in Manhattan, the ‘Icebox,’ and was shown Reports that Crooked Joe Biden’s DOJ, in their Illegal and UnConstitutional Raid of Mar-a-Lago, AUTHORIZED THE FBI TO USE DEADLY (LETHAL) FORCE,” Trump said in a post on Truth Social. “NOW WE KNOW, FOR SURE, THAT JOE BIDEN IS A SERIOUS THREAT TO DEMOCRACY. HE IS MENTALLY UNFIT TO HOLD OFFICE — 25TH AMENDMENT!”

“The FBI followed standard protocol in this search as we do for all search warrants, which includes a standard policy statement limiting the use of deadly force. No one ordered additional steps to be taken and there was no departure from the norm in this matter,” the FBI said in a statement.

Much of the plan includes traditional practices by the FBI when executing a warrant – like how agents are required to have their standard issued weapon, ammunition and credentials while on duty.

Other parts, however, show the lengths that the bureau went to to accommodate the former president, including instructions for commanding agents to wear “unmarked polo or collared shirts” and to keep their “law enforcement equipment concealed,” as well as references to their efforts to coordinate with US Secret Service to create a smooth process for entering the Florida club.

This story has been updated with additional details.

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