Federal prosecutors have informed the legal team for former President Donald J. Trump that he is a target of their investigation into his handling of classified documents after he left office, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The notification to Mr. Trump’s team by prosecutors from the office of the special counsel, Jack Smith, was the clearest signal yet that the former president is likely to face charges in the investigation.
It remained unclear when Mr. Trump’s team was told that he was a target of the special counsel’s inquiry, but the notice suggested that prosecutors working for Mr. Smith had largely completed their investigation and were moving toward bringing an indictment.
In court papers last year, prosecutors indicated that they were scrutinizing whether Mr. Trump had broken laws governing the handling of national security documents and whether he had obstructed government efforts to retrieve them.
Mr. Trump was found to have had more than 300 documents with classified markings at Mar-a-Lago, his private club and residence in Florida, including some found in a search there by F.B.I. agents two months after lawyers for the former president said a diligent search had not turned up any more.
Notifying a potential defendant that he or she is a target is a formal way of indicating that the person is a direct focus of a criminal investigation and often precedes the filing of charges. The notification typically opens the door to defense lawyers requesting a meeting with prosecutors to offer their side of the story.
On Monday, three of Mr. Trump’s lawyers — James Trusty, John Rowley and Lindsey Halligan — met for almost two hours with Mr. Smith and others at the Justice Department in what people close to Mr. Trump described as a final effort to stave off charges and alert top prosecutors to what they believe to be misconduct in Mr. Smith’s investigation.
On Wednesday, witnesses continued to appear in front of a federal grand jury in Miami that was hearing evidence in the documents case — among them Taylor Budowich, one of Mr. Trump’s former spokesmen.
Aides and advisers to Mr. Trump spent the day in a state of high tension. As Mr. Budowich completed his grand jury appearance, John Solomon, a conservative journalist who serves as one of Mr. Trump’s representatives to the National Archives, published an article claiming that prosecutors were moving toward indicting Mr. Trump “imminently.”
The New York Times contacted Mr. Trump directly to ask if he had in fact been told that he would be indicted, and he said it was “not true.”
But when asked if he had been told he is a target of a federal investigation, Mr. Trump did not respond directly, saying “you have to understand” that he was not in direct touch with prosecutors. He then repeated that “it’s not true” that he was told he will be indicted.
A short time later, Mr. Trump, who was at his club in Bedminster, N.J., posted a message denying Mr. Solomon’s claim on his social media platform.
“No one has told me I’m being indicted,” Mr. Trump wrote, “and I shouldn’t be because I’ve done NOTHING wrong, but I have assumed for years that I am a Target of the WEAPONIZED DOJ & FBI.”
Most of the documents investigation has been conducted by a grand jury sitting in Washington, which has heard from numerous witnesses over the past several months, including some of Mr. Trump’s White House advisers, some low-level workers at Mar-a-Lago and more than 20 members of his Secret Service security detail.
Only a handful of witnesses — including some Mar-a-Lago employees — have appeared so far before the grand jury in Miami, which seems to have started hearing evidence last month, according to people familiar with its workings. It remains uncertain how many more witnesses are scheduled to testify before the Miami grand jury.
Recently, there have been indications that the grand jury in Washington has either expired or paused hearing testimony, according to several people familiar with its workings. Some of those people said the last witnesses to appear for questioning in Washington did so in early or mid-May.
Should prosecutors ultimately charge Mr. Trump — an outcome he and some of his advisers are said to believe is likely — it remains an open question whether Mr. Smith’s team would file an indictment in Washington, Miami or both cities.
The special counsel’s office is also conducting a separate inquiry into Mr. Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election. The status of that investigation seems to be lagging somewhat behind the classified documents case. Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, was recently subpoenaed for testimony and documents in the Jan. 6 investigation, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Mr. Trump is already under indictment in New York by a local prosecutor in a hush-money case, and is under scrutiny by a prosecutor in Georgia over his efforts to overturn his election loss in that state in 2020.
Federal prosecutors appeared to be still assembling evidence in the documents investigation on Wednesday. Mr. Budowich appeared at the Miami courthouse around 9 a.m. for an hour or two of questions in front of the grand jury.
One matter that prosecutors were interested in asking about was a statement that Mr. Trump had his aides draft shortly after news broke that National Archives officials had recovered 15 boxes of material from him in January 2022. Mr. Budowich was Mr. Trump’s spokesman at the time.
The statement that Mr. Trump initially wanted to send, according to two people briefed on the matter, said that he had returned all the presidential material he had. A draft was written, according to people familiar with the matter. Prosecutors have that draft and have asked witnesses about emails that aides sent about it, according to the people briefed on the matter.
The contention in the draft statement that Mr. Trump had returned all government records in his possession turned out to be false. After finding that the 15 boxes contained highly sensitive documents, prosecutors issued a subpoena demanding the return of any classified documents still in Mr. Trump’s possession. Mr. Trump’s lawyers subsequently turned over more, but the later F.B.I. search found more.
The statement that Mr. Trump actually sent out after the return of the 15 boxes in early 2022 did not assert that he had returned all the government material in his possession.
After his grand jury appearance ended, Mr. Budowich posted a message on Twitter saying he had answered “every question honestly.” He described the inquiry as “a bogus and deeply troubling effort to use the power of government to ‘get’ Trump.”
His lawyer, Stanley Woodward Jr., declined to comment.
While many of the central events in the documents inquiry occurred in Florida — perhaps most notably the search of Mar-a-Lago last summer — the case was opened by national security prosecutors working out of the Justice Department in Washington. Legal experts have debated which location would provide prosecutors with the best venue to sustain criminal charges.