Sealed notes shed light on Trump's alleged efforts to hide classified documents

Judge Aileen Cannon is considering tossing out the notes as evidence.

ByKatherine Faulders and Peter Charalambous ABCNews logo
Wednesday, June 26, 2024
Sealed notes shed light on Trump's alleged efforts to hide documents
Donald Trump privately expressed concern that turning over classified documents after a May 2022 subpoena could result in criminal charges.

Donald Trump privately expressed concerns that turning over potentially classified documents in his possession after a May 2022 subpoena could result in criminal charges while repeatedly engaging in what prosecutors have described as an effort to enlist his lawyers to lie and destroy documents for his benefit, according to transcripts of audio notes reviewed by ABC News.

Prosecutors allege that rather than comply with the subpoena, Trump opted to hide dozens of classified documents from his own lawyers, and federal agents eventually seized 102 classified documents -- including 17 top secret documents -- after they executed a search warrant at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in August 2022.

The notes, which ABC News first reported on last year, are at the center of an ongoing legal battle in the former president's federal classified documents case, where prosecutors have used the detailed notes about Trump's behavior and statements as key evidence to demonstrate that the former president attempted to obstruct justice by hiding documents from investigators.

Aileen Cannon, the judge overseeing the case, is hearing arguments today on Trump's effort to limit prosecutors' use of the notes and to have the entire case dismissed based on the role of the notes in the government's case.

Two months before agents searched Mar-a-Lago, Trump's former lead attorney Evan Corcoran's notes -- which prosecutors have used to bolster their case against the former president -- describe that Trump repeatedly blamed his legal troubles on his "political enemies," was reluctant to allow the review of boxes that prosecutors say contained dozens of classified documents, and engaged in conduct that prosecutors believe was an effort to "corrupt" his attorneys by concealing Trump's alleged retention of classified documents.

"He raised a question as to, if we gave them additional documents now, would they, would they, the Department of Justice, come back and say well, why did you withhold them and try to use that as a basis for criminal liability or to make him look bad in the press," according to Corcoran's notes about what Trump asked his attorneys in May 2022 after prosecutors subpoenaed the former president to turn over any classified documents in his possession, records reviewed by ABC News say.

"Well look isn't it better if there are no documents?" Trump also asked his attorneys after raising concerns about prosecutors "opening up new fronts against him," according to Corcoran's notes.

A spokesperson for the special counsel's office declined to comment to ABC News. A spokesperson with The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Prosecutors alleged in a recent court filing that Trump attempted to "enlist (Corcoran) in the corrupt endeavor" by suggesting he falsely tell the FBI that Trump did not have classified documents or that he hide or destroy them rather than turn them over.

"Trump tried to enlist his attorney in his criminal endeavor, tested his attorney's receptiveness, and then manipulated his attorney to achieve his criminal ends when the attorney did not accept his overtures," prosecutors wrote in a recent filing.

Trump pleaded not guilty last year to a 40-count indictment related to his handling of classified materials, after prosecutors said he repeatedly refused to return hundreds of documents containing classified information and took steps to thwart the government's efforts to get the documents back. Trump has denied all charges and denounced the probe as a political witch hunt.

Defense lawyers have repeatedly argued that the notes from Trump's lawyer are protected by attorney-client privilege, but a federal judge in Washington D.C. last year determined that notes could be used as evidence after prosecutors demonstrated that Trump deliberately misled his attorneys in furtherance of a crime, piercing attorney-client privileges invoked by two of his lawyers.

'I don't want anybody looking through my boxes'

Corcoran made multiple audio recordings to memorialize his interactions with the former president, including meeting with Trump on May 23, 2022 to discuss his response to a subpoena for any classified documents stored at Mar-a-Lago.

During an approximately one-and-a-half-hour meeting with both Trump and attorney Jennifer Little, Trump brought a box to their first meeting to demonstrate its contents, showing the attorneys his newspaper clippings, Post-it notes, and photos, and other materials.

"I don't want anybody looking, I don't want anybody looking through my boxes, I really don't, I don't want you looking through my boxes," Trump said, according to a portion of the notes included in the indictment against Trump. "Look I just don't want anybody going through these things."

Corcoran wrote that he attempted to focus on Trump's response to the subpoena, though the former president frequently returned to the topic that he was being targeted by political opponents.

"He repeated many times that he felt he was really being targeted," Corcoran noted.

"Look, you know, I have ten different actions against me. They are trying to get me. They're going after me. These people are ruthless," Trump remarked while boasting about his own administration. "I've done all these great things for the country. I improved the economy, I lowered taxes, I did this, I did that, built the wall."

Corcoran recalled that he tried to steer the conversation back to the boxes and warned the former president about the legal consequences of not complying with the subpoena.

"Well what if we, what happens if we just don't respond at all or don't play ball with them?" Trump asked, according to a portion of the notes included in the indictment.

"Well, there's a prospect that they could go to a judge and get a search warrant and that they could arrive here and get a search warrant," Corcoran responded.

According to Corcoran, Trump repeatedly asked during their meeting if it would be "better if we just told them we don't have anything here."

During an interview with Smith's team, Little largely corroborated Corcoran's recollection of the meeting, telling investigators that she "very clearly" warned Trump about the seriousness of the subpoena and told him "it's going to be a crime" if he failed to comply but swore otherwise.

After speaking about the subpoena for more than an hour, Trump concluded the meeting to attend a series of interviews before reconvening with the attorneys in the afternoon. According to Corcoran, Trump suggested that the attorneys -- who he noted were both single -- "take a walk along the beach" and that "maybe ... sparks will fly."

But while waiting poolside at Mar-a-Lago for their next meeting with Trump, Corcoran said Little warned -- based on her conversation with two other Trump attorneys -- that if they pushed Trump to comply with the subpoena, "he's just going to go ballistic," Corcoran noted.

Little added that "there's no way he's going to agree to anything and that, that he was going to deny that there were any more boxes at all," according to Corcoran's notes.

'Isn't it better if there are no documents?'

Later in the afternoon on May 23, 2022, Corcoran and Little met with Trump in a small library at Mar-a-Lago, ditching their phones outside the room at the direction of the former president, according to Corcoran.

Sitting feet from Trump across a small table, Corcoran said Trump asked about the legal consequences for complying with the subpoena while cautioning that prosecutors "really wanted to get him anyway they could."

Trump blamed the investigation on his "political enemies" who wanted to "weaken him and get him not to run" for president." Trump said he was "just trying to understand what the best way" was to respond to the investigations and claimed that prosecutors would "keep opening up new fronts against him."

According to Corcoran's notes, Trump expressed concerns that returning "additional documents" following the subpoena could become the "basis for criminal liability.

"He asked again, he said -- Well look, isn't it better if there are no documents?" Corcoran noted.

Corcoran added that during their meeting, Trump repeatedly recounted that a lawyer for Hillary Clinton "deleted all of her emails" so "she didn't get into any trouble."

"He was great, he did a great job," Trump told the lawyers, according to the notes.

Prosecutors allege that during the meetings with his attorneys, Trump attempted to test Corcoran's receptiveness to evading the subpoena, though the meeting concluded with the two setting a plan for Corcoran to return to Mar-a-Lago to search through the boxes for documents responsive to the subpoena.

"Look, so you're -- so if I'm hearing you right, what you want is to come back and have me or somebody go through and find some, get any classified documents if there are any. That, that, sounds like that's the plan you want, is it?" Trump said, repeating the plan multiple times, according to the notes.

"We will figure this out. Go through the documents, if we've got any classified stuff, get it to DOJ," Trump said, according to the notes.

Prosecutors allege that Corcoran's rebuff to Trump's suggestions resulted in the former president adopting a different plan -- deceiving his attorney by having his "trusted body man" and co-defendant Walt Nauta move the boxes from the storage room in Mar-a-Lago to prevent Corcoran from conducting a complete search.

In the days between the May 23 meeting with Trump and Corcoran's June 2 review of the boxes at Mar-a-Lago, prosecutors allege that Trump coordinated for Nauta to remove 64 boxes out of the storage room to Trump's personal residence, where Trump planned to "pick from them," according to text messages between Nauta and a Trump family member. By the time Corcoran returned to Mar-a-Lago to review the boxes, only about 30 of the 64 boxes moved by Nauta were returned for the search.

'Don't call me with any bad news'

Corcoran described the process of searching through the boxes in the cramped storage room during a humid June day as a "laborious" and unpleasant task, though Corcoran noted that contents of the boxes -- "thousands" of Post-it notes, magazines, emails with senators and heads of state, books, notebooks, and briefing materials -- offered a unique window into Trump's state of mind as president.

"If Robert Caro or some other presidential biographer had been in my position, they would have been absolutely in heaven," Corcoran said in his notes.

Corcoran also noted that the boxes included an odd variety of contents, including presidential memorabilia, Make America Great Again hats, gifts from foreign leaders, clothing -- including underwear and socks -- and toiletries like mouthwash, toothpaste, and razors. Some of the boxes were sealed with white duct tape and many included a typed note about the destination for the box, such as "W-H to M-A-L."

According to Corcoran, Trump's description of the boxes' contents suggested they became "catch-all depositories for what he'd gone through day after day" when he reviewed materials in the White House residence.

"I had to read these things at night so that I could be ready, that's the only time I could read something, and I had to read them so I could be ready for calls or meetings the next day," Trump told Corcoran about how briefing memos, notes, and emails ended up in the boxes. "I just had boxes in the, in my bedroom, you know, a lot of boxes and I'd just, you know, read these things and then throw them in there."

While Trump told Corcoran he instructed others to declassify any of the documents that entered his residence, the former president appeared to acknowledge in his conversation with Corcoran that simply bringing the documents into his residence did not result in declassifying the documents.

"I told people to declassify -- anything that comes into the residence should be declassified. And I told people. I told lawyers that. I don't know what was done, I don't know how they were marked. But that was my position," Trump said, according to Corcoran.

Corcoran's search of the room ultimately resulted in a half-inch stack of classified documents, which he sealed in a redweld envelope using duct tape.

"Did you find anything?" Trump asked Corcoran after he concluded his search. "Is it bad? Good?"

According to Corcoran, Trump asked Corcoran about how he planned to store the documents, particularly "anything really bad in there."

"He made a funny motion as though -- well okay why don't you take them with you to your hotel room and if there's anything really bad in there, like, you know, pluck it out. And that was the motion that he made. He didn't say that," Corcoran noted.

The following day, Corcoran coordinated for Jay Bratt, then the deputy chief of the Department of Justice's National Security Division, and FBI agents to visit Mar-a-Lago to take custody of the responsive documents.

Corcoran received a panicked call from Trump about the visit from federal officials on the morning of their visit, according to Corcoran's notes.

"Oh that's very bad. What, you know, what do they want? What are they trying to, why are they trying to get something on me again?" Trump said, according to the notes.

While Corcoran emphasized that the meeting was a routine step that he coordinated, Trump still expressed concern that "this is very bad" and was particularly interested in Bratt's attendance at the meeting.

"Why is the top guy coming? It's very unusual, very unusual, you know?" Trump remarked, though Corcoran noted that Trump's tone about the meeting appeared to change over the day.

According to Corcoran, Trump personally encouraged showing Bratt and the FBI agents the storage room where the documents were stored, over the advice of Corcoran. According to prosecutors, despite Corcoran's search resulting in return of 38 documents bearing classification markings, Trump still possessed 102 classified documents in Mar-a-Lago -- in part due to his effort to hide documents from Corcoran when he attempted to comply with the subpoena -- which would be discovered when federal agents returned to Mar-a-Lago two months later with a search warrant.

"I've got nothing to hide. I've got nothing to hide. If they ask. I want you to show them," Trump told Corcoran in June.

Later that day, Trump walked into the meeting where Corcoran handed over the classified documents to federal officials, personally shaking the hands of Bratt and the FBI agents.

"I'm glad you're here. I -- I appreciate what you're doing. If you need anything at all just ask Evan," Trump said, according to Corcoran.

After Trump left the meeting, Corcoran escorted the federal officials to the storage room where Trump's boxes were stored, allowing them to look at the room but not touch any of the boxes.

Later that day, Corcoran noted that he received a phone call from Trump, who was onboard his plane en route to New Jersey for the summer.

"Well we're taking off. But look, Evan, don't call me with any bad news, okay? Don't call me with any bad news," Trump said, according to the notes.