Prosecutors have urged a federal judge to hold Donald Trump's office in contempt of court for failing to fully comply with a May subpoena to return all classified documents in his possession, according to people familiar with the matter -- a sign of how contentious the private talks have become over whether the former president still holds any secret papers.
In recent days, Justice Department lawyers have asked U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell to hold Trump's office in contempt, according to the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sealed court proceedings. But the judge has not yet held a hearing or ruled on the request, they said.
The request came after months of mounting frustration from the Justice Department with Trump's team -- frustration that spiked in June after the former president's lawyers provided assurances that a diligent search had been conducted for classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago Club and residence. But the FBI amassed evidence suggesting -- and later confirmed through a court-authorized search -- that many more remained.
One of the key areas of disagreement centers on the Trump legal team's repeated refusal to designate a custodian of records to sign a document attesting that all classified materials have been returned to the federal government, according to two of these people. The Justice Department has repeatedly sought an unequivocal sworn written assurance from Trump's team that all such documents have been returned, and Trump's team has been unwilling to designate a custodian of records to sign such a statement while also giving assurances that they have handed documents back.
The precise wording of the filing could not be determined because it remains under seal. Trump is under investigation for three potential crimes: mishandling classified documents, obstruction and destruction of government records.
Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said the former president's lawyers "continue to be cooperative and transparent." He added: "This is a political witch hunt unlike anything like this country has ever seen."
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.
Trump's team has searched a number of his other properties in recent weeks, in response to the Justice Department concerns and instructions from the judge, and turned over two items with classification markings to the government. Trump's advisers told the FBI the items were found in a storage facility used by the former president in West Palm Beach, Fla. Other Trump properties searched in recent weeks include his Bedminster golf course in New Jersey and his home and office at Trump Tower in Manhattan. People familiar with those searches by a private firm say no classified documents were found at those locations.
Trump's side has taken the position that such a request is unreasonable -- that no lawyer could sign such a blanket certification in good faith or advise any client to do so, as opposed to attesting that a search of a given location has been completed in good faith. Some of Trump's lawyers are also wary of making any claim under oath based on Trump's word alone, two people familiar with the matter said.
The government's request for a finding of contempt underscores the fundamental distrust that has existed since the spring between the government trying to retrieve sensitive documents and a former president whose responses have been less than forthcoming. That distrust has led to a legal impasse in sealed papers over what constitutes a complete search for classified papers.
Information for this article was contributed by Spencer S. Hsu, Josh Dawsey, Jacqueline Alemany, Devlin Barrett and Rosalind S. Helderman of The Washington Post.