A federal judge has ordered lawyers for former President Donald J. Trump to give the government the names of the private investigators who searched Mr. Trump’s properties late last year for any remaining classified documents, part of what appeared to be a step by the Justice Department toward questioning the investigators about their efforts, two people familiar with the matter said.
The order, issued on Wednesday by Beryl A. Howell, the chief judge of the Federal District Court in Washington, was the latest twist in a monthslong dispute between prosecutors and Mr. Trump’s lawyers about how forthcoming the former president has been in returning classified material that he removed from the White House after he left office. Hundreds of classified documents were later recovered by the government from Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s private club and residence in Florida.
The fact that the Justice Department sought a formal order for the investigators’ names suggests an increasing breakdown in trust between prosecutors investigating the documents case and Mr. Trump’s legal team. And the request comes as a special counsel has taken over the inquiry into whether Mr. Trump willfully retained sensitive records or obstructed the government’s efforts to retrieve them.
The New York Times reported in October that a top Justice Department official had told Mr. Trump’s legal team that the department believed the former president still had classified documents in his possession even after the F.B.I. conducted a search of Mar-a-Lago in August and hauled away more than 20 boxes of materials, including about 100 documents marked as classified.
Around Thanksgiving, the private investigators hired by Mr. Trump conducted their own round of searches and found at least two additional documents bearing classification markings in a storage unit paid for by the federal General Services Administration in West Palm Beach, Fla., not far from Mar-a-Lago.
More on the Trump Documents Inquiry
- Contempt Request: A federal judge was asked to decide whether to issue a contempt finding if no one from the office of former President Donald J. Trump agrees to vow that, to the best of their knowledge, all of the classified materials he took have been returned to the government.
- Special Master: An appeals court shut down a special master’s review of files seized from Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, removing a major obstacle to the Justice Department’s investigation.
- Special Counsel: Attorney General Merrick B. Garland appointed Jack Smith, a longtime prosecutor, to take over the documents inquiry and the investigation into Mr. Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 attack.
The documents discovered at the storage facility were promptly returned to the government. But in a display of their lack of trust and their anger, prosecutors asked Judge Howell in sealed filings to hold representatives of Mr. Trump’s post-presidential office in contempt for having failed to fully comply with an initial subpoena — issued in May — demanding that he return all classified documents he took with him from the White House.
At a court hearing held behind closed doors last month, Judge Howell put off ruling on the government’s contempt request. The judge has still not issued a decision, according to the people familiar with the matter.
The more recent spat began when prosecutors asked Mr. Trump’s lawyers for the names of the investigators who searched the storage facility and other Trump properties — among them, Mar-a-Lago; Mr. Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, N.J.; and Trump Tower in New York.
According to the people familiar with the matter, the lawyers offered to make the investigators available for questioning but wanted their identities shielded by a protective order, out of concern that the government might leak the information to the news media.
Instead of agreeing to a protective order, one of the people said, prosecutors asked Judge Howell for a motion to compel the release of the investigators’ names. A spokesman for the office of Jack Smith, the special counsel who is overseeing the documents inquiry, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
If the private investigators are ultimately interviewed by prosecutors or are put in front of a federal grand jury in Washington that is investigating the handling of the documents, they will join a growing number of people close to Mr. Trump who have been questioned in connection with the case.
Prosecutors have interviewed Walt Nauta, who worked in the White House as a military valet and cook when Mr. Trump was president and later for him personally at Mar-a-Lago. Prosecutors have indicated they are skeptical of an initial account that Mr. Nauta gave about moving documents stored at Mar-a-Lago and have been using the specter of charges against him to persuade him to cooperate with the inquiry.
Prosecutors have also conferred immunity on Kash Patel, a former close adviser to Mr. Trump, effectively forcing him to testify in the documents investigation in front of the grand jury. Mr. Patel had initially invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and refused to answer questions from prosecutors investigating Mr. Trump.