Prosecutors in the special counsel's office have presented compelling preliminary evidence that former President Donald Trump knowingly and deliberately misled his own attorneys about his retention of classified materials after leaving office, a top federal judge wrote Friday in a sealed filing, according to sources who described its contents to ABC News.
U.S. Judge Beryl Howell, who on Friday stepped down as the D.C. district court's chief judge, wrote last week that prosecutors in special counsel Jack Smith's office had made a "prima facie showing that the former president had committed criminal violations," according to the sources, and that attorney-client privileges invoked by two of his lawyers could therefore be pierced.
Trump has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in his handling of classified documents.
In her sealed filing, Howell ordered that Evan Corcoran, an attorney for Trump, should comply with a grand jury subpoena for testimony on six separate lines of inquiry over which he had previously asserted attorney-client privilege.
Sources added that Howell also ordered Corcoran to hand over a number of records tied to what Howell described as Trump's alleged "criminal scheme," echoing prosecutors. Those records include handwritten notes, invoices, and transcriptions of personal audio recordings.
In reaching the so-called prima facie standard to pierce Corcoran's privilege, Howell agreed prosecutors made a sufficient showing that on its face would appear to show Trump committed crimes. The judge made it clear that prosecutors would still need to meet a higher standard of evidence in order to seek charges against Trump, and more still to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
"It is a lower hurdle, but it is an indication that the government had presented some evidence and allegation that they had evidence that met the elements of a crime," Brandon Van Grack, a former top national security official in the Justice Department who is now in private practice, told ABC News.
Howell found that prosecutors showed "sufficient" evidence that Trump "intentionally concealed" the existence of additional classified documents from Corcoran, sources said, putting Corcoran in an unwitting position to deceive the government.
It's unclear what evidence Howell may have reviewed under seal from both DOJ and Trump's attorneys to help her arrive at her decision.
In response to ABC News, a Trump campaign spokesperson said, in part, "Shame on Fake News ABC for broadcasting ILLEGALLY LEAKED false allegations from a Never Trump, now former chief judge, against the Trump legal team."
"The real story here, that Fake News ABC SHOULD be reporting on, is that prosecutors only attack lawyers when they have no case whatsoever," the spokesperson said.
A spokesperson for the special counsel's office declined to comment to ABC News.
The developments described by sources illustrate another dimension of the former president's ongoing legal vulnerabilities. As Smith's classified documents probe marches forward, prosecutors in New York are mulling a separate indictment against Trump over hush payments he allegedly paid to an adult film star ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Trump also faces scrutiny in Georgia over his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election in the state, and Smith is continuing his own probe into Trump's attempts to interfere in the 2020 election.
Central to Smith's efforts in the classified documents probe is determining whether lawyers who represented the former president falsely certified in response to a grand jury subpoena that Trump had returned all classified records to the government or whether Trump himself sought to conceal records that he might have unlawfully retained.
Federal prosecutors have claimed that lawyers for Trump certified in June 2022 that a "diligent search" of Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate turned up just 38 classified documents stored in a secured storage room. But two months later, when FBI agents raided the premises, they found more than 100 additional documents marked classified -- some of which were located outside of the storage room, including in Trump's office desk, prosecutors said.
In her order last Friday, Howell was unsparing in her criticism of Trump's actions since early last year in response to the government's attempts to retrieve all classified documents taken from the White House. At one point she described Trump's interactions with officials from the National Archives as a "dress rehearsal," sources said, for his later efforts at misdirection in response to the grand jury subpoena.
As ABC News has previously reported, investigators sought to compel the testimony of Corcoran and another Trump attorney, Jennifer Little, as part of their probe, citing the crime-fraud exception, which allows for attorney-client privilege to be pierced in cases where it is suspected that legal services were rendered in the commission of a crime. Sources told ABC News that Howell ordered Little's testimony as well, with the exception of one of the topics for which she sought to assert attorney-client privilege.
Sources said prosecutors have sought to question Corcoran on how he aided another Trump attorney, Christina Bobb, in drafting the June 2022 statement to the Justice Department, which Bobb ultimately signed.
Attorneys for Trump were expected to appeal Howell's Friday ruling, sources said.