The day before a key meeting last year between a lawyer for former President Donald Trump and officials seeking the return of classified documents in Trump’s possession, a janitor at the former president’s private club saw an assistant moving boxes in a storage room, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The janitor offered to help the assistant — Walt Nauta, who was Trump’s valet at the White House — move the boxes and ended up helping him. But the worker had no idea what was inside the boxes, the person familiar with the matter said. The maintenance worker shared that account with federal prosecutors, the person said.
The worker’s account is potentially important to prosecutors as they piece together details about how Trump handled sensitive documents he took with him from the White House when he left office and whether he obstructed departmental efforts. of Justice and the National Archives to recover them.
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It was discovered that Trump was keeping some of the documents in the storage room where Nauta and the maintenance worker moved boxes the day before senior Justice Department counterintelligence official Jay Bratt was visiting. in Mar-a-Lago, Florida last June to demand the return of any government equipment held by the former president.
Nauta and the worker moved the boxes around the room before a search of the storage room the same day by Mr. Evan Corcoran, a Trump attorney who was in discussions with Bratt. Corcoran called Justice Department officials that evening to arrange a meeting the following day. He believed he did not have security clearance to carry documents with classified marks, a person briefed on his decision said.
Weeks earlier, the Justice Department had issued a subpoena demanding the return of the documents. Prosecutors have been trying to determine whether Trump had any documents moved around Mar-a-Lago or if he sought to conceal some of them after the subpoena.
Part of their interest is trying to determine if any documents have been moved before Corcoran goes through the boxes himself ahead of a meeting with Justice Department officials seeking to retrieve them. Prosecutors questioned witnesses about the roles of Nauta and the maintenance worker, whose name has not been released, in moving documents around this time.
During his trip to Mar-a-Lago on June 3, Bratt received a package of about three dozen documents with classified marks from a Trump attorney. Bratt also received a letter, written by Corcoran but signed by another attorney for the former president, stating that a diligent search had been made for any additional material in response to the subpoena and none had been found. . Bratt was not allowed to search the storage room at this time.
Two months later, FBI agents with a warrant searched Mar-a-Lago and found more than 100 additional classified documents, including in the storage room and in Trump’s office.
The detail of the timing of Nauta’s interaction with the maintenance worker was reported earlier by The Washington Post. A lawyer for Nauta declined to comment. An attorney for the maintenance worker would not publicly discuss the matter.
The New York Times reported this month that prosecutors obtained cooperation from a witness who worked at Mar-a-Lago. Among other things, the witness provided investigators with a photo of the storage room.
The investigation, overseen by Special Counsel Jack Smith, has shown signs of entering its final stage, and this week lawyers for Trump – who is the current front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination – asked a meeting to discuss the case with Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Steven Cheung, Trump’s spokesman, called the investigation a “targeted, politically motivated witch hunt against President Trump, concocted to meddle in an election and prevent the American people from sending him back to the White House.”
He added that prosecutors had “harassed anyone and everyone who works, worked for, or supports President Trump,” and argued that Trump tried to cooperate with the Justice Department.
Prosecutors questioned witnesses about Trump’s possible motive for having the documents.
They subpoenaed information about Trump’s trade deals with foreign countries since becoming president. And witnesses told them that some aides may have known Trump still had documents in his possession after an initial 15 boxes of government documents – containing classified documents – were turned over to the National Archives in January 2022 after persistent efforts by the archive to recover the material, according to people briefed on the matter.
Among the most prominent witnesses in recent months has been Corcoran, who met with Justice Department Bratt last June and drafted the letter that a diligent search turned up no other documents.
In March, prosecutors successfully breached Corcoran’s attorney-client privilege with Trump under the criminal fraud exception, a provision of the law that can be used when investigators have evidence that the services of an attorney may have been used in the commission of a crime.
Judge Beryl Howell, then chief judge presiding over grand jury cases at the U.S. District Court in Washington, found that prosecutors had sufficiently demonstrated that Trump knowingly misled Corcoran about the documents he still had.
The Times had previously reported that Howell, writing in a sealed memorandum, described what she called Trump’s “misdirection” in his dealings with the National Archives in 2021 and early last year, saying he s was “apparently a dress rehearsal” for how he handled the grand jury subpoena last May, according to a person briefed on the contents of the memo.
In the sealed memo setting out his reasoning for deciding that Corcoran should not be protected by solicitor-client privilege, Howell cited numerous instances of what prosecutors considered evidence of possible obstruction and wrongful possession. of government documents from Trump, the person informed. on its said content.
“Other evidence demonstrates that the former president deliberately sought to preserve classified documents when he was not authorized to do so, and he knew it,” Howell wrote, the person said.
Howell acknowledged that the standard for meeting the criminal fraud exception is lower than what would be required to press charges or obtain a jury verdict, according to the person familiar with what she wrote. Still, the judge made it clear that she believed the government had reached the threshold of obstructing grand jury proceedings and “unauthorized withholding of national defense information,” the person said.
“The government has provided sufficient evidence that the former president possessed tangible documents containing national defense information,” she wrote, adding that they showed he “did not turn over these documents to an officer authorized to receive them”.
At another point, Howell addressed Trump’s intent and mindset, saying the government had also provided enough evidence to discharge its burden of showing the former president deliberately withheld the documents. classified, the person said.
She also noted that a new search of Trump properties late last year, conducted by experts on Trump’s behalf after pressure from prosecutors, revealed additional documents with classified marks in his bedroom in Mar. -a-Lago, said the person briefed on the document.
“Notably, no apology is provided as to how the former president could have missed the classified documents found in his own room at Mar-a-Lago,” Howell wrote, according to the person briefed on the contents of his memo. .
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