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Two Witnesses the DoJ Wants to See Cooperating Share One Thing. And That’s a Problem.
The New York Times had a piece out last Monday night that generally reported what we already know, namely that Trump aides are under pressure to testify against him in the NARA-Lago documents case. So why are we reading about this again?
The Justice Department believes both witnesses hold important keys to the case against the former president for the unlawful mishandling and possession of government documents, including highly sensitive, national security and other classified information. The Times story filled in some gaps in what we know but then skipped over the real story, perhaps for its own reasons. Let’s look at what that real story is after reviewing what we learned.
Filling in the Gaps
The aides who were the subject of the story include Walt Nauta, whom I wrote about earlier and whose name I urged we all remember, and Kash Patel, a former staffer for Rep. Devin Nunes who was promoted quickly through the Trump White House.
Nauta was something of a personal valet to Trump tasked with duties that included fetching him his Diet Coke. He was also one of the people whom Trump instructed to move documents to his residence from the storage room at Mar-a-Lago after receiving a grand jury subpoena for them—a rather obvious way to avoid turning the squirreled documents over, but also a rather obvious case of obstruction.
Nauta’s story has changed as investigators interviewed him over time. His initial statement apparently conflicted with videotape evidence of him moving boxes at Mar-a-Lago. He eventually told investigators that Trump directed him to move the boxes, but apparently that’s not what he first said to investigators. This flip-flop makes him a less-than-ideal witness for the prosecution because liars can be readily impeached on cross-examination. (Think: “Did you only change your testimony after the FBI pressured you to? Did you lie to them then, or are you lying now?”) On the other hand, if Nauta simply tells the truth—that he felt pressure to lie for the former president but couldn’t maintain the lie in the face of the videotape evidence—that might still resonate with the jury.
Patel was a relatively green staffer appointed as Chief of Staff to the Acting Secretary of Defense in the waning days of the Trump presidency and then as a representative for the former president to the National Archives and Records Administration (the NARA in NARA-lago). Patel is the fellow who insisted on national television that he personally witnessed Trump declassifying documents and that Trump had a standing order to declassify anything that went to his residence. But when Patel was brought before the grand jury earlier this month and presumably was asked about that remarkable claim, he pled the Fifth in response to many questions, unwilling to say under oath what he claimed publicly, according to the Times reporting.
In short, Patel initially refused to flip. But per the Times, Patel now may be required to give testimony. Prosecutors have reportedly appeared before a top judge in the D.C. Circuit and asked that Patel be ordered to testify. This probably means that prosecutors have agreed to grant him immunity in exchange for his testimony. The deal works because a witness can’t plead the Fifth if he’s at no risk of self-incrimination. But admittedly, such a deal is also far from ideal. Patel could be painted as a coward who cut a deal to throw his boss under the bus, rather than someone who came forward willingly against a bad man.
The Real Story Is that These Witnesses Share the Same Trumpy Lawyer
The fact that both Nauta and Patel were willing to lie to protect Trump raises a difficult question that rarely gets addressed, and the Times piece seems almost negligent for not taking it on. The real problem with Trump, who thinks and acts like a mob boss, is that he is so very good at obstructing justice. That skill comes in many forms, but chief among them is getting witnesses to refuse to cooperate even when the pressure is really on. Allen Weisselberg, Trump’s stubbornly loyal CFO, comes to mind.
To get at this question of Trump’s strong-arming and obstruction in the NARA-Lago case a bit better, we don’t need to dig very far. One of the first questions I had when Nauta was reported as having been brought in for questions was simple: “Who is his lawyer?” The weird thing about the Times reporting is that it totally ignores this question, perhaps on purpose, and moreover doesn’t even mention that the two people in its own story—Walt Nauta and Kash Patel—now have the same lawyer. His name is Stanley Woodward.
Woodward is also, by no small coincidence, a lawyer for defendant Kelly Meggs, who is an Oath Keeper accused of seditious conspiracy and whose trial is currently underway. The Times is well aware that Woodward represents Nauta, as it dropped that fact in a story two weeks ago, a fact noted by one eagle-eyed legal commentator, who added drily that the headline ought to have been “Stanley Woodward’s Non-Sedition Clients.”
So why not draw this connection openly in its reporting on Monday? One simple reason is that the source for all of this reporting is likely Woodward himself, or perhaps someone in his office. No one else would have the kind of first-hand knowledge of what’s going on with these two different clients, outside of the witnesses themselves or the government investigators, neither of whom is likely talking to the Times.
The problem with using Woodward or his office as the source is that the defense effectively gets to shape the media narrative. And in the interest of protecting the source, some important questions apparently don’t get asked. For example, another question I immediately had was, “Who is paying for Nauta’s defense?” Nauta, after all, is presumably not a wealthy man, and the cost of lawyers would quickly bankrupt him.
The Times piece even states that in the middle of the investigation, Nauta actually changed lawyers:
“At some point while Mr. Nauta was engaged with the Justice Department about the boxes, he changed lawyers, hiring two Washington criminal defense attorneys, two people familiar with the matter said.”
This is no small fact, and with two defense lawyers now, no small cost. Whoever is fronting the bill for that will have a big say in what the defense looks like. But the Times piece doesn’t get further into this, nor does it even raise the question of why Nauta switched lawyers, which is an obvious thing to want to know. When Cassidy Hutchinson switched lawyers, for example, it was so she could come out from under the influence of Trump aligned forces. That led to a breakthrough in the January 6 Committee. Are Nauta and Patel still under the influence of the Trump team because of who is paying for their legal bills and who their lawyer is?
It should come as no surprise that Woodward has another high profile case in Trumpland. Woodward is also apparently representing Peter Navarro in his case against the January 6 Committee to avoid having to answer its subpoena. Given his client roster, it’s fair to wonder whether Woodward will really act in his clients’ best interests or in furtherance of a larger political goal of protecting the former president and those who are paying his fees. This should, but apparently does not, give outlets like the Times pause, especially if they really are using Woodward as a source for their reporting.
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