A federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday that a lawyer representing former President Donald J. Trump in the investigation into his handling of classified material had to answer a grand jury’s questions and give prosecutors documents related to his legal work. This ruling followed Mr. Trump’s effort to stop the lawyer, M. Evan Corcoran, from handing over what are likely to be dozens of documents to investigators. Prosecutors are trying to assemble evidence about whether Mr. Trump committed a crime in defying the government’s efforts to reclaim classified materials he took after leaving the White House. Prosecutors have been focused on a document that Mr. Corcoran drafted last spring stating that a “diligent search” had been conducted at Mar-a-Lago and that no further classified material remained there, an assertion that would be proved false. Prosecutors have been seeking to learn what Mr. Trump knew about that statement, according to people briefed on the matter.
The case 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 break through attorney-client privilege when they have reason to believe that legal advice or legal services have been used in furthering a crime, typically by the client.
In seeking to obtain as much information from Mr. Corcoran as possible, 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. 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. Her order also outlined a half-dozen areas of inquiry that the Justice Department wants Mr. Corcoran to answer questions about.
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.
The appeals court’s decision concerning Mr. Corcoran left open a lingering threat to the government’s case. While the court allowed Judge Howell’s ruling compelling Mr. Corcoran to provide information to prosecutors to stand for now, it also permitted the underlying appeal of the decision to move forward.
Prosecutors will have to weigh the risk of using the information Mr. Corcoran has provided as evidence to seek any grand-jury indictment or in any trial, depending on the stage of any case. If the appeals court, or the Supreme Court, ultimately rules that the government’s arguments about the crime-fraud exception were wrong, prosecutors would be barred from using the information Mr. Corcoran had provided as evidence to seek any grand-jury indictment or in any trial.
The Justice Department has been examining 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.
The case has passed through two different courts and generated several dueling rounds of papers, but it still remains unclear precisely what crime the government believes might have been committed or who, other than or in addition to Mr. Trump, might have committed it.