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  • The San Juan Daily Star

Prosecutors pressure Trump aides to testify in documents case


Former President Donald Trump at a rally at Legacy Sports Park in Mesa, Ariz., Oct. 9, 2022.

By Michael S. Schmidt, Maggie Haberman and Alan Feuer


Federal prosecutors investigating former President Donald Trump’s handling of national security documents he took with him from the White House have ratcheted up their pressure in recent weeks on key witnesses in the hopes of gaining their testimony, according to two people briefed on the matter.


The effort by the Justice Department shows how the investigation is entering a new phase as prosecutors seek to push recalcitrant witnesses to cooperate with them.


A key focus for prosecutors is Walt Nauta, a little-known figure who worked in the White House as a military valet and cook when Trump was president and later for him personally at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private club and residence in Florida.


Prosecutors have indicated they are skeptical of an initial account Nauta gave investigators about moving documents stored at Mar-a-Lago and are using the specter of charges against him for misleading investigators to persuade him to sit again for questioning, according to two people briefed on the matter.


At the same time, the prosecutors are trying to force a longtime aide and ally to Trump, Kash Patel, to answer questions before a grand jury about how the documents were taken to Mar-a-Lago and how Trump, his aides and his lawyers dealt with requests from the government to return them, according to a person briefed on the matter.


Patel was designated by Trump this year as one of his representatives to the National Archives and Records Administration to deal with his presidential records, particularly in relation to materials from the investigation into whether Trump’s 2016 campaign had ties to Russia.


Shortly after the FBI executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago in August to reclaim the classified documents, Patel publicly proclaimed that Trump had declassified the records before leaving office. But Patel refused to answer many questions this month before a grand jury in Washington hearing evidence about Trump’s handling of the documents, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, according to a person briefed on the matter.


In response, prosecutors asked a top federal judge in Washington to force Patel to testify — a move fought by Patel’s lawyers, who are concerned the government wants to use Patel’s own statements to incriminate him. CNN reported Thursday that Patel had appeared before a grand jury.


The efforts to gain the testimony of Nauta and Patel demonstrate how department officials will have to make decisions in the coming weeks and months about whether to charge the witnesses, offer them cooperation agreements, grant them immunity or give up on trying to obtain their testimony, according to the people briefed on the matter.


Prosecutors loathe giving witnesses immunity, particularly in high-profile cases, because it makes it significantly more difficult to prosecute the individual who has received it, according to legal experts. Instead, prosecutors favor entering into cooperation agreements, in which the witness agrees to answer investigators’ questions in exchange for not being charged or a recommendation for a shorter prison sentence.


The Justice Department declined to comment.


In May, prosecutors issued a subpoena for all classified documents that Trump still had in his possession after returning 15 boxes of government material in January. And after investigators became convinced that the former president and his lawyers had not turned over all the material in his possession, the FBI conducted the court-authorized search of Mar-a-Lago in August, hauling away a trove of about 22,000 pages of documents.


The inquiry became bogged down one month later when a federal judge in Florida, at Trump’s request, appointed an independent arbiter, known as a special master, to review the seized material for anything that might be shielded from the investigation by attorney-client or executive privilege.


The special master’s work is proceeding on a separate track from the main investigation and has been rife with disputes. But Monday, the Justice Department and Trump’s lawyers finally laid to rest one issue, saying in a letter that they had resolved all of their disagreements concerning about 500 pages of the seized material that were potentially protected by attorney-client privilege.


Proving intent is often a challenge for prosecutors, and that hurdle has repeatedly come up in various investigations into Trump. To that end, prosecutors are particularly focused on Nauta because he could provide insight into Trump’s intentions as he parried the Justice Department’s attempts to reclaim the documents from him at the same time the materials were moved around at Mar-a-Lago.


If the boxes were moved against the Justice Department’s wishes or to conceal them from authorities, it could help prosecutors in developing the obstruction investigation.


Nauta, a native of Guam and a U.S. Navy sailor, grew close to Trump during the White House years, when he worked as a cook in the Navy mess in the White House and then as a valet in the West Wing. He was a frequent presence around Trump, bringing him the Diet Cokes he often consumes or carting things to and from the White House residence for him.


When Trump became a private citizen, Nauta joined him at Mar-a-Lago, working as something of an all-purpose aide.


Security-camera footage obtained by investigators showed Nauta moving boxes out of a storage area at Mar-a-Lago, raising the questions about whether they were moved at Trump’s behest to conceal them from authorities or Trump’s own lawyers, who were dealing with demands that he return the documents.


Trump’s legal team is in possession of its own copy of the surveillance footage, which covers a hallway in the basement of Mar-a-Lago, and has closely guarded who gets to see it, taking great precautions with its digital storage and distribution, according to two people briefed on the matter.


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