A federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday that a lawyer representing former President Donald J. Trump in an inquiry into his handling of classified materials had to give prosecutors what are likely to be dozens of documents related to his legal work for Mr. Trump.
The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia came after a lightning round of filings that began on Tuesday evening when Mr. Trump sought an order to stop the lawyer, M. Evan Corcoran, from handing over documents to investigators.
The pitched behind-the-scenes legal fight continued overnight and into early Wednesday morning, with prosecutors responding to Mr. Trump’s request for a stay in the case with papers submitted before dawn. It played out as a separate legal proceeding involving Mr. Trump — the Manhattan district attorney’s consideration of whether to seek an indictment of the former president on charges related to a hush-money payment to a porn actress — remained unresolved.
The fight in Washington over Mr. Corcoran’s level of compliance in the documents case suggests that the prosecutors are working to assemble evidence that Mr. Trump could have committed a crime in defying the government’s efforts to reclaim the classified materials he took with him after leaving the White House.
As a legal matter, the litigation — all of which has taken place behind closed doors or under seal — involves a balancing act between attorney-client privilege, which generally protects lawyers from divulging private communications with their clients to the government, and a special provision of the law known as the crime-fraud exception. That exception allows prosecutors to work around attorney-client privilege when they have reason to believe that legal advice or legal services have been used in furthering a crime.
The spat began last month when the office of the special counsel, Jack Smith, sought to pierce assertions of attorney-client privilege that Mr. Corcoran and Mr. Trump had made in the documents inquiry. In an initial appearance before a grand jury investigating the case, Mr. Corcoran had asserted the privilege as a way to limit the scope of the questions he would have to answer as well as the number of legal records he would have to turn over.
But in seeking to obtain as much information from Mr. Corcoran as it could, Mr. Smith’s office invoked the crime-fraud exception in a filing to Judge Beryl A. Howell, who sits in Federal District Court in Washington. Prosecutors working for Mr. Smith wanted Judge Howell to set the attorney-client privilege aside and compel Mr. Corcoran to give them what they wanted.
On Friday, Judge Howell issued a ruling saying that the government had indeed met the threshold to invoke the crime-fraud exception and that prosecutors had made a preliminary case that Mr. Trump had violated the law in the documents case. As part of her decision, she ordered Mr. Corcoran to turn over most of the legal documents he had tried to withhold and return to the grand jury to more fully answer the prosecutors’ questions.
But on Tuesday night, as Mr. Corcoran began preparing to comply with the judge’s order, lawyers for Mr. Trump asked the appeals court to stay the ruling as they sought to reverse parts or all of her decision. The appeals court granted an initial temporary stay of the ruling and set an unusually aggressive schedule for the case, telling Mr. Trump to file papers by midnight and the government to file a response by 6 a.m. on Wednesday.
Even though the case has now passed through two different courts and generated several dueling rounds of papers, it still remains unclear precisely what crime the government believes might have been committed — or who might have committed it.
Still, among the subjects that the Justice Department has been examining since last year is whether Mr. Trump or his associates obstructed justice by failing to comply with repeated demands to return a trove of government materials he took with him from the White House upon leaving office, including hundreds of documents with classified markings.
In May, before Mr. Smith took over the investigation as a special counsel, federal prosecutors issued a subpoena for any classified documents still in Mr. Trump’s possession — after he voluntarily handed over an initial batch of records to the National Archives that included almost 200 classified documents.
In response to the subpoena, Mr. Corcoran met with federal investigators in June and gave them another set of documents, more than 30 of which carried classification markings. He then drafted a statement for another lawyer to give to the Justice Department saying that a “diligent search” had been conducted at Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s club and residence in Florida, and that no more classified materials remained there.
In August, F.B.I. agents armed with a warrant searched Mar-a-Lago. The search yielded three classified documents in desks inside Mr. Trump’s office, with more than 100 documents in 13 boxes or containers with classification markings in the residence, including some at the most restrictive levels.
About three weeks after Mr. Corcoran’s meeting with investigators in June, federal prosecutors issued another subpoena — this one for surveillance footage from a camera near a storage room at Mar-a-Lago. Among the subjects that Mr. Smith’s office wants Mr. Corcoran to testify about is a phone call he had with Mr. Trump around the time that the subpoena for the video footage was issued, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Prosecutors are also interested in two men who were caught in the surveillance footage moving boxes from the storage room at Mar-a-Lago, according to two people familiar with the matter. One of the men was Waltine Nauta, a former White House aide who went to work for Mr. Trump in Florida. The other was a worker at Mar-a-Lago.
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