Surprise in Trump classified documents case: A Miami grand jury hearing evidence

Aug 30, 2022; Image contained in a court filing by the Department of Justice on Aug. 30, 2022 of a redacted FBI photograph of certain documents and classified cover sheets recovered from a container in the “45 office” seized during the Aug. 8 search by the FBI of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. According to the filing the “classification levels ranged from CONFIDENTIAL to TOP SECRET information, and certain documents included additional sensitive compartments that signify very limited distribution. In some instances, even the FBI counterintelligence personnel and DOJ attorneys conducting the review required additional clearances before they were permitted to review certain documents.” Mandatory Credit: Handout/Department of Justice via USA TODAY NETWORK (Department of Justice via USA TODAY NETWORK)

A federal grand jury quietly meeting in Miami could potentially play a pivotal role if a special counsel decides to pursue a criminal case against former President Donald Trump for his alleged mishandling of classified documents at his Palm Beach estate, according to multiple media outlets.

A grand jury has been meeting for months in Washington to investigate and consider possible charges against Trump over his keeping hundreds of classified materials at his Mar-a-Lago residence and potentially obstructing the U.S. government’s efforts to retrieve them.

But the existence of the separate panel in Miami flew under the radar until it was first reported by The Wall Street Journal, then confirmed over the last few days by the New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press, Miami Herald and other media outlets. The Miami panel of 23 grand jurors was impaneled on March 9 to consider criminal evidence in the West Palm Beach division, according to court records. The jurors met on Wednesday at the federal courthouse in Miami to consider new evidence in the Trump documents case, the Miami Herald has learned.

What is not clear is whether the grand jury in Washington or in Miami will ultimately return an indictment against Trump, if the former president is charged at all. Others might also be charged in connection with the FBI probe.

On Wednesday morning, CNN reported that the latest witness to appear before the South Florida panel was Taylor Budowich, a former Trump spokesman who now runs a super PAC called MAGA. Inc. CNN reported that Budowich and his attorney, Stanley Woodward, declined to answer questions as they arrived at the federal courthouse in downtown Miami.

The Mar-a-Lago investigation, led by special counsel Jack Smith, who was appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland, appears to be winding down and social media speculation has heated up that a final decision could be close on whether to indict the former president or others involved in handling the documents. Numerous media outlets reported that Trump’s lawyers met at the Justice Department in Washington on Monday with officials, including Smith, as part of an effort by the legal team to argue against a potential indictment.

The Justice Department has been tight-lipped on the investigation and it’s unclear why twin grand juries might be employed in the investigation. A spokesman for Smith declined to comment Tuesday night to The Associated Press even on the existence of a second grand jury.

But legal experts told the numerous media outlets, including the Miami Herald, that it suggests the potential for at least part of any case to be filed and prosecuted in South Florida.

The former president has been vocal about the ongoing probe on his social media site and in interviews. Trump recently called into the Todd Starnes radio show, where he confirmed the Justice Department meeting with his lawyers: “Well, I can just say this: They did go in and they saw ’em and they said very unfair. No other president has ever been charged with anything like his.’”

The investigation stems from a drawn-out dispute over accusations that the former president had mishandled classified records. Months after his departure, Trump engaged in a confrontation with the National Archives and then the FBI over releasing the classified documents — including material about a foreign country’s nuclear capabilities and military defenses — leading to the seizure of top secret documents at his private club last summer.

Miami Herald staff writer Jay Weaver contributed to this report.