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Mar-a-Lago search: Federal judge declines to hold Trump in contempt of court

Beryl Howell presses Trump team, Justice Department to work together to find a mutually agreeable resolution
Mar-a-Lago
Posted at 12:55 AM, Dec 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-10 01:03:55-05

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A federal judge declined to hold former President Donald Trump in contempt of court in failing to comply with a grand jury subpoena demanding the return of documents with classified markings, in a closed-door hearing Friday, two sources familiar with the matter told CNN.

The sources also told CNN that Chief Judge Beryl Howell in the District of Columbia instead pressed the Trump team and the Justice Department to work together to find a mutually agreeable resolution.

The DOJ's contempt request, which was first reported by The Washington Post, came after Trump's lawyers recently discovered at least two documents with such markings in a storage unit in West Palm Beach. The unit is not far from Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort, where the FBI executed a search warrant in August after obtaining information that Trump had held onto documents with classification markings even after getting hit with a grand jury subpoena for their return in May.

ABC News first reported the judge had urged the teams to resolve the matter themselves. NBC also confirmed the judge's decision.

The contempt proceedings for Trump ended after almost 90 minutes behind closed doors on Friday afternoon.

CNN observed prosecutors, including the Justice Department’s counterintelligence chief Jay Bratt, and attorneys for Trump exiting the courthouse just before 3:30 p.m. ET. The two legal teams had gathered in the chambers area for Howell, who was set to consider whether to hold Trump in contempt for failing to comply with a subpoena ordering him to turn over classified records, according to CNN’s reporting.

No outcome was publicly announced.

According to sources, the judge questioned prosecutors on how she could hold Trump’s team in contempt given the steps Trump’s lawyers have taken to alleviate the Justice Department’s concerns that there may still be records in Trump’s possession.

She also questioned why prosecutors were quibbling over the necessity for a custodian of records to attest that all documents had been returned when Trump’s lawyers had already informed the Justice Department that they had searched four locations, found two documents with classified markings and returned those documents to investigators, according to two sources.

The Justice Department declined to comment.

When asked for comment, Trump spokesman Steven Cheung sent the same statement issued on Thursday, saying the former president and his lawyers “will continue to be transparent and cooperative, even in the face of the highly weaponized and corrupt witch-hunt from the Department of Justice.”

A coalition of media organizations that included CNN had asked Howell to allow public access to Friday’s hearing, but the judge did not grant the request.

Lisa Klem, the court spokesperson, acknowledged the sealed hearing on Friday in a statement, but provided no more information as to what happened.

“This afternoon, the Court held a hearing regarding an ongoing and sealed grand jury matter. This matter remains under seal, pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 6(e) and Local Criminal Rule 6.1,” the statement said.

Had Trump been held in contempt Friday, he could have racked up fines.

The proceedings ratchet up pressure on Trump as he faces possible criminal liability in the Mar-a-Lago documents investigation being conducted by special counsel Jack Smith. It also adds another chapter to the ongoing struggle for federal officials to reclaim government records – especially those that contain national security secrets – from Trump after his administration ended.

After the DOJ subpoenaed Trump for documents with classified markings in his possession in May, prosecutors went to court to enforce the grand jury subpoena. The judge ordered Trump’s team to comply. That prompted a search by Trump lawyers last month that yielded two more documents with classification markings.

But the Justice Department is still unsatisfied with the search and with Trump’s side not asserting all documents have been turned over, CNN previously reported.

NBC News contributed to this report