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Evan Corcoran: Why Donald Trump’s lawyer may be key in the case against him

The testimony of the attorney provides some of the strongest evidence against the former president, who has been charged for handling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago

Donald Trump's lawyer Evan Corcoran, after testifying before a grand jury in March in Washington.
Donald Trump's lawyer Evan Corcoran, after testifying before a grand jury in March in Washington.JONATHAN ERNST (REUTERS)

The key moment in the investigation into classified papers held by Donald Trump happened last March, a year after the probe began. That was when a Washington judge ordered one of the former president’s legal advisors, Evan Corcoran, 58, to testify. What the lawyer shared turned out to be pure gold for the team headed by special counsel Jack Smith.

Three months later, Corcoran’s revelations are among the most damaging pieces of evidence in the indictment against Trump. The lawyer — now a witness — promises to play a key role in the case against the former president, who faces 37 felony counts, 31 relating to the willful retention of national defense information, while other charges include conspiracy to commit obstruction and providing false statements.

Corcoran’s testimony came about in an unusual way. While attorney-client privilege is sacrosanct under the U.S. legal system, it can be pierced on the basis of the crime-fraud exception. This is applied in cases where it is suspected that a lawyer’s legal services were rendered in the commission of a crime or to conceal one. Washington Judge Beryl Howell granted that exception in March after determining that the Department of Justice had met the threshold for the crime-fraud exception. The move was made despite numerous efforts by Trump’s legal team to prevent it.

Unlike Trump’s personal aide Walt Nauta, who is accused of conspiring with the former president to hide the boxes of top secret papers at Mar-a-Lago, Corcoran is not facing any charges. Indeed, the indictment says that Trump and Nauta went to lengths to ensure the lawyer — who remains on Trump’s legal team — did not know that all the documents illegally withheld at his Florida mansion had not been returned.

In 2022, Trump — who is notorious for going through lawyers — was looking for an attorney to help him address the National Archives, which had been demanding since 2021 that he return all classified documents he took from the White House after leaving office on January 20 of that year. More than a hundred boxes of those papers would be stored on a ballroom stage, before being moved to a bathroom and then to Trump’s business center and storage room. In January 2022, Trump returned 15 boxes containing 197 classified documents, but he still had around 100 more in Mar-a-Lago. One of Trump’s favorite legal advisors, Boris Epshteyn — who is on probation after being arrested in a bar fight — recommended that Trump hire Corcoran. The former president offered him the job without investigating further.

Matthew Evan Corcoran — a man described by those who know him as “methodical” — comes from a family with deep Republican roots. His father, Thomas Corcoran, was a four-term congressman of the Republican Party in Illinois. After starting his career in the judiciary, Evan Corcoran became an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington in the 1990s and then moved to the private sector in 2000. He made his debut as Trump’s legal advisor in 2021, when he defended Steve Bannon — Trump’s former political strategist — against contempt charges for refusing to comply with a subpoena from the special House committee investigating the Capitol siege. In that trial, Bannon lost the case and was found guilty.

When he was thrown into the center of Trump’s universe at Mar-a-Lago, Corcoran took meticulous notes, which he recorded on his cell phone and then transcribed on paper. This is a common measure used by U.S. lawyers, both for work purposes and as a form of legal protection, if called on to discuss what was said with a client.

Corcoran’s notes were a gold mine for Smith’s team. The 49-page indictment includes numerous statements and recollections from Corcoran, who is identified as “Attorney 1″ in the document.

On May 11, 2022, a grand jury ordered Trump to turn over all classified documents that he had kept after leaving the White House. On May 23, the former president met with Corcoran and another lawyer to discuss the order.

Trump claimed to the Department of Justice and FBI that he was “an open book.” But according to “Attorney 1,″ the real estate magnate was hesitant to hand over the documents. “I don’t want anybody looking through my boxes, I really don’t, I don’t want you looking through my boxes,” he said as memorialized in the notes. He also asked: “What happens if we just don’t respond at all or don’t play ball with them?” “Wouldn’t it be better if we just told them we don’t have anything here?” and “Isn’t it better if there are no documents?”

In that same conversation, Trump claimed that the lawyer for Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival in the 2016 elections, deleted 30,000 emails from her account. “He was great. She didn’t get in any trouble because he said that he was the one who deleted them,” Trump said, according to the indictment.

The lawyer’s testimony indicates that, as a result of that conversation, he agreed to go to Mar-a-Lago on June 2 to examine the boxes, locate the classified documents and return them. But before he arrived, Nauta had arranged for 64 boxes to be moved to another part of the residence, on Trump’s orders. No one notified the lawyer of the existence of this additional material.

Corcoran was able to examine about 30 boxes and found 38 classified documents, which he placed in a folder. When he finished, Trump asked him if he had found anything “bad.” While he was discussing with the former president how to get the folder to the National Archives, Trump made a plucking motion. “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,” said Corcoran.

The next day, another lawyer from Trump’s team, after consulting with Corcoran, confirmed that there were no more classified documents in Trump’s possession. Two months later, in August, FBI agents backed by a search warrant entered Mar-a-Lago. They seized dozens of boxes containing 102 classified documents and national secrets: from information on U.S. nuclear weapons to military plans.

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