Attorney warned Trump 'it's going to be a crime' if he ignored docs subpoena: Sources

Trump attorney Jennifer Little spoke with federal investigators, sources said.

ByKatherine Faulders, Mike Levine, and Alexander Mallin ABCNews logo
Wednesday, November 29, 2023
Trump discusses classified document he says he held onto in recording
ABC News has obtained a President Donald Trump tape where he discussed a classified Pentagon document.

One of former president Donald Trump's current attorneys told special counsel Jack Smith's team that, within days of the Justice Department issuing a subpoena last year for all classified documents at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate, she "very clearly" warned Trump that if he failed to fully comply -- but then swore he did -- "it's going to be a crime," according to sources familiar with the matter.

Sources said the lawyer, Jennifer Little, told investigators Trump "absolutely" understood the warning, which came during a pivotal meeting at Mar-a-Lago with Trump and another attorney, Evan Corcoran, who had recently joined Trump's legal team.

NOTE: The video is from a previous report.

What Little allegedly told Smith's team earlier this year may shed further light on how Smith came to accuse Trump of knowingly violating the law, saying in his June 9 indictment against Trump that the former president defied a subpoena by hiding more than 100 classified documents from the FBI and even his own legal team, and then having his legal team certify otherwise.

As ABC News reported in September, Corcoran, who was Trump's lead attorney on the matter at the time, allegedly told investigators that he also emphasized to Trump the importance of complying with the subpoena, even warning that authorities might search the Mar-a-Lago estate if he didn't comply.

As described to ABC News, Little told investigators that while meeting with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, she wanted to explain to him that a subpoena from the Justice Department was "different from" what Trump faced over the months before, when officials with the National Archives demanded he return documents taken from the White House.

Little allegedly recalled to investigators that she tried to impress upon Trump how "serious" the matter had become, with sources quoting her as telling investigators that she warned Trump, "You've got to comply."

This split image shows attorney Jennifer Little during a court appearance at the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta, July 1, 2019, left, and former President Donald Trump, left.

But the indictment filed against Trump in Florida alleges that he did not comply and failed to turn over all documents in his possession, allegedly opting to obstruct Justice Department efforts. In particular, according to the indictment, Trump tried to "conceal his continued retention of classified documents" and "caused a false certification to be submitted to the FBI" claiming that all classified documents had been returned.

Trump and his co-defendants have pleaded not guilty in the case and denied any wrongdoing.

A spokesperson for the special counsel's office declined to comment to ABC News for this story. An attorney for Little did not respond to a request for comment from ABC News.

A spokesperson for Trump also did not respond to a request for comment.

'OK, I get it'

Little, a former Georgia state prosecutor, is currently representing Trump in the Fulton County, Georgia, case in which Trump and 18 others were indicted on conspiracy and racketeering charges stemming from their alleged roles in trying to overturn Georgia's presidential election results in 2020.

According to sources, Little was first hired by Trump in March 2021, only a couple of months after he left the White House, and shortly after authorities in Georgia launched their election-related probe. But more than a year later, she ended up briefly helping Trump with other matters.

For most of the year after Trump left office, the National Archives pressed him to return any government documents he still had in his possession. When Trump finally returned 15 boxes of documents to the National Archives in January 2022, nearly 200 classified documents were found inside, triggering the National Archives to refer the matter to the Justice Department, which opened an investigation into Trump's handling of classified materials.

Four months later, believing Trump still possessed even more classified documents, the Justice Department issued its subpoena to him. Little suggested retaining an attorney who had handled federal cases before, so Corcoran was then hired, and she essentially handed over the matter to him, sources said.

On May 23, 2022 -- 12 days after receiving the subpoena -- Little and Corcoran met with the former president at Mar-a-Lago. It was Corcoran's first time meeting Trump in person, and Little allegedly wanted to help ease Corcoran into his new role.

But, as sources described it to ABC News, Little told investigators she had a bigger purpose in going to that meeting: She wanted to explain to Trump that whatever happened before with the National Archives "just doesn't matter," especially because Trump never swore to them, under the penalty of perjury, that he had turned everything over, sources said. But whatever happens now has "a legal ramification," Little said she tried to emphasize to Trump, according to the sources.

As Little recounted to investigators, she told Trump that if -- after a diligent search of Mar-a-Lago -- they found more classified documents and returned all of them, he wouldn't face legal jeopardy, as it would be complying with the subpoena, the sources said.

But, she told Trump, if there are any more classified documents, failing to return all of them moving forward will be "a problem," especially because the subpoena requires a signed certification swearing full compliance, the sources said.

"Once this is signed -- if anything else is located -- it's going to be a crime," sources quoted Little as recalling she told Trump.

The sources said that when investigators asked Little if those messages to Trump "landed," she responded: "Absolutely."

MORE: Trump discusses classified document he says he held onto in audio recording obtained by ABC News

ABC News has obtained a President Donald Trump tape where he discussed a classified Pentagon document.

The former president said something to the effect of, "OK, I get it,'" the sources said she recalled to investigators.

According to the indictment against Trump, notes that Corcoran made after the meeting say Trump asked his lawyers what would happen if they didn't "play ball" with the Justice Department, and that he asked them, "Wouldn't it be better if we just told them we don't have anything here?"

Speaking with investigators, Little allegedly said she couldn't recall Trump suggesting they not "play ball," and she allegedly said she remembered Trump's other question as simply wondering, in light of the subpoena, whether it would be better for them to find documents or not.

She allegedly reiterated that whatever the facts were would not be a problem; what mattered was complying with the subpoena, especially if he was going to swear he was in compliance, she allegedly said.

As described to ABC News, Little also recalled to investigators that, during the meeting, Trump claimed he was being unfairly targeted by authorities, repeating a much-disputed claim that any documents he brought with him had been declassified.

Before Little and Corcoran left Mar-a-Lago, Trump agreed that Corcoran, as Trump's lead attorney on the matter at the time, should return to Mar-a-Lago in the coming days to search for any classified documents.

But over the next two weeks, before Corcoran searched a basement storage room he was directed to, Trump's two co-defendants in the documents case, Mar-a-Lago staffers Walt Nauta and Carlos De Oliveira, allegedly removed dozens of boxes from the storage room -- all "at Trump's direction" and with the goal "that many boxes were not searched and many documents responsive to the May 11 Subpoena could not be found," according to Smith's indictment against Trump.

According to the indictment, Corcoran ultimately found 38 classified documents in the boxes that remained in the storage room, and he handed them over to the FBI, along with a certification -- allegedly endorsed by Trump -- that the former president had now fully complied with the subpoena.

When FBI agents then searched Mar-a-Lago three months later, they found 102 more documents marked classified in Trump's office and elsewhere on the property.

Piercing attorney-client privilege

As described to ABC News, what Little told investigators seemed to corroborate some of what Corcoran separately told them and captured in contemporaneous notes he took following the May 23, 2022, meeting with Trump.

ABC News reported in September that, according to the notes and what Corcoran later told investigators, Corcoran had warned Trump that if he didn't comply with the subpoena, he could face legal trouble and that the FBI might search his estate.

In her discussions with investigators, Little said she also likely told Trump that if he didn't fully comply with the subpoena, "they could just come in and do a search warrant," sources said.

Both Little and Corcoran spoke with investigators about certain conversations with Trump only after, as ABC News first reported, a federal judge ruled in March that the attorney-client privilege was overridden by the need to follow evidence suggesting Trump used his attorneys to commit a crime.

'It's different from before'

At the Mar-a-Lago meeting with Trump to discuss the subpoena, Little allegedly tried to make clear to Trump that because it was coming from the Justice Department, the subpoena for classified documents was not just another request from any government agency.

"This matters now, it's different from before," sources quoted her as recalling she told Trump.

It was also apparently different from other high-profile cases of classified documents being found at homes or offices associated with past presidents or past vice presidents.

For example, when classified documents were found at a home and office associated with President Joe Biden, Biden's attorney notified the National Archives and Records Administration, then helped the government retrieve them, with one of Biden's attorneys writing in an email at the time, "[We] are prepared to facilitate whatever access you need to accomplish NARA taking custody of whatever materials it deems appropriate."