When the federal indictment against Donald Trump was finally unveiled on Friday, his advisers were shocked at the degree to which investigators have made the former president’s own defense lawyer the No. 1 government witness to prove Trump committed a coverup, according to two people briefed on the matter.
After all, Trump lawyer Evan Corcoran’s professional notes of his interactions with Trump show the way the former president openly mused about lying to investigators about the existence of hundreds of classified records at his oceanside estate, Mar-a-Lago—and seemed to insinuate that his lawyer should take the fall for him by destroying evidence.
Those damning notes—which were previously handed over to federal investigators by a D.C. judge despite the firm protests of Trump’s legal team—strongly underpin the government’s case that Trump knew full well he was engaged in a coverup. Corcoran’s notes are the pivotal evidence behind the most severe criminal charge Trump faces: conspiracy to obstruct justice, which comes with the threat of a 20-year prison sentence.
But the importance of Corcoran’s role in the case, these sources said, is already setting into motion a plan to use the Florida federal court district’s auspicious assignment of a MAGA-loyal judge to essentially reverse time—by undoing the D.C. judge’s decision to hand over Corcoran’s notes.
It’s too late for Trump’s team to snatch them back from Department of Justice Special Counsel Jack Smith. But sources said they will aim to have the South Florida federal judge—whom Trump himself appointed—dismiss the charge that Trump personally schemed up ways to interfere with the feds, arguing that Corcoran’s notes should have remained private due to attorney-client privilege.
The potential outcome shows the degree to which the court system’s theoretically “random” selection of U.S. District Judge Aileen M. Cannon to oversee the criminal case could play out favorably to the former president—and the rocky legal path Smith and his prosecutors face in the months to come.
If it works, one source told The Daily Beast, Corcoran could be “totally in the clear,” providing a narrow boost for Trump in court—but nowhere near saving the former president entirely.
At this point, Corcoran is a key piece of the puzzle. The indictment lays out how he conversed with his client behind closed doors about how to deal with the former president’s snowballing nightmare in the spring of 2022.
By that point, Trump’s stubborn refusal to return classified records to the National Archives for months had resulted in the agency passing the matter along to the FBI, which opened a criminal investigation in March, leading the DOJ to open a grand jury investigation in the Washington, D.C., federal courthouse in April.
On May 11 last year, the grand jury sent over a subpoena demanding that “The Office of Donald J. Trump” turn over all documents with classification markings: national secrets, spy material, war plans—everything.
Corcoran’s notes, which were redacted in the indictment but explained to The Daily Beast by two sources who have seen them, describe how he and fellow defense lawyer Jennifer Little met with Trump a week later at Mar-a-Lago, where the former president aired all kinds of ideas.
“Well, what if we, what happens if we just don’t respond at all or don’t play ball with them?” Trump wondered aloud. “Wouldn’t it be better if we just told them we don’t have anything here?”
“Well, look, isn’t it better if there are no documents?” Trump asked.
To some, these questions may seem downright damning, particularly when addressed to a veteran defense lawyer like Corcoran, who spent eight years as a federal prosecutor in the nation’s capital and was once considered for a top spot in the DOJ. But both sources who spoke to The Daily Beast pointed out that Trump’s comments were merely snippets of an hours-long conversation that floated all kinds of ideas, representing the very kinds of constitutionally protected interactions between an attorney and their client that usually remain open and uncensored to ensure that lawyers can fully explain all possible legal strategies—and what crosses the boundaries of ethics and the law.
That same day, May 23, 2022, Trump also leaned into the same complaint he’s had for years: how former presidential rival Hillary Clinton was never formally punished when thousands of her emails were deleted after they had been subpoenaed by Republicans on the congressional committee investigating the Benghazi attack that occurred during her tenure as Secretary of State. Corcoran’s notes show how Trump mischaracterized who and how Clinton’s emails got erased, claiming that his one-time archenemy’s lawyer did the deed, a comment that seemed to imply Corcoran should do the same.
“David Kendall, he was great, he did a great job. You know what? He said, he said that it—that it was him,” Trump rambled, according to Corcoran’s notes. “That he was the one who deleted all of her emails, the 30,000 emails, because they basically dealt with her scheduling and her going to the gym and her having beauty appointments. And he was great. And he, so she didn’t get in any trouble because he said that he was the one who deleted them.”
Kendall’s name is redacted in the indictment, but sources clarified what the notes actually said.
On their own, the notes seem incredibly damning for Trump, according to a source personally familiar with internal discussions on the former president’s team.
“They were way too detailed,” this person warned.
And they provide key context for what allegedly happened next. Smith’s prosecutors have obtained text messages and other evidence that shows how Trump allegedly coordinated with his Diet Coke valet, Waltine Nauta, to move boxes of classified documents specifically to keep them away from Corcoran.
“At Trump’s direction,” the indictment states, Nauta removed 64 boxes from the Mar-a-Lago storage room and placed them in Trump’s living quarters—all before the Washington-area attorney returned to South Florida. Prosecutors lay out how Trump, knowing that Corcoran was going to soon send the grand jury an official response, kept tabs on Corcoran and maneuvered to keep him in the dark—having Nauta swap out some boxes in storage with others from his home.
Timothy Parlatore, a defense attorney who recently left Trump’s legal team, told The Daily Beast that the indictment is a stark accusation of serious misconduct.
“It’s really bad,” Parlatore said. “That whole discussion about his interaction with Walt to move the boxes is bad. That’s what people go to jail for. It’s bad—if they have the evidence to back it all up.”
But he noted that Cannon is well-positioned to swing this aspect of the case the other way. And it all has to do with the way the feds got Corcoran’s notes in the first place.
In March, The Daily Beast revealed how a high-ranking federal judge overseeing disputes related to the grand jury investigation took the controversial and remarkable step of personally turning over Corcoran’s notes to the feds. On her final day as the District of Columbia’s chief judge, Beryl A. Howell determined that investigators could pierce the typically ironclad blanket of attorney-client privilege because of something called the “crime-fraud exception,” meaning that Trump apparently used legal advice in furtherance of a crime.
But it’s the details—which are still kept secret from the public because they’re under seal—that could prove decisive in the months to come if they are reviewed by Judge Cannon in South Florida.
According to one source, Trump’s lawyers were not even permitted to be in the D.C. federal courtroom when the DOJ’s national security prosecutors made their case as to why Corcoran’s notes should have been turned over. Howell made Trump’s defense attorneys, led by Jim Trusty, wait for an hour in a jury room while the deputy chief of the DOJ’s counterintelligence and export control section, Julie Edelstein, and her colleagues laid their arguments in secret. This source claimed that when the judge finally allowed Trump’s team back into the courtroom, she merely said, “Mr. Trusty, would you like to reply?”
To which Trusty responded incredulously, “Reply to what?”
But instead of ordering that Corcoran turn over his notes to the DOJ and giving his colleagues several days to appeal the ruling, Howell oddly did it herself. It’s now clear that her bold move played a significant role in bolstering the indictment that was handed down by a Miami grand jury three months later.
It’s that order that Cannon could examine in the months to come.
“If another judge looks at it and says this is normal attorney client-communications, they can strike these charges out of the indictment and Corcoran’s no longer a witness. He can try the case himself,” Parlatore said.
There’s no telling how far she’ll go to appease Trump—and he seems to know it.
Trump’s lawyers specifically sought her out in early 2022 when they filed a nonsense lawsuit against Hillary Clinton at the far northern edge of South Florida’s judicial district in Cannon’s satellite courthouse —where she’s the only judge around. That gambit failed when the district’s assignment program kicked the case to Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks, who happened to have been appointed by Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton. Middlebrooks used choice words when calling out Trump’s team on their brazen attempt to game the judicial system.
Trump’s lawyers struck gold when they landed Cannon months later in their legal challenge to the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago—defying the odds by filing the lawsuit at a Fort Lauderdale federal courthouse but still managing to get the Palm Beach federal judge. In the weeks that followed, Cannon issued inexplicably one-sided rulings that halted the FBI investigation, stopped special agents from reviewing seized documents already in their possession, and briefly setup a “special master” in faraway Brooklyn meant to slow down the case. That is, until a conservative appellate court panel in Atlanta ripped her rulings apart and forced her to back off.
But this time the ball is in her court, as is the matter of Corcoran’s notes—and potentially Trump’s fate.
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