Heated hearing in classified documents case as lawyer for Trump co-defendant challenges prosecutors

May 21, 2024, 9:22 PM | Updated: May 22, 2024, 2:30 pm

FORT PIERCE, Fla. (AP) — A lawyer for Donald Trump’s personal valet took aim at the conduct of prosecutors in the classified documents case in a heated hearing Wednesday, the first since a judge indefinitely postponed the trial.

Stanley Woodward, a lawyer for Walt Nauta, said prosecutors had targeted his client for prosecution after he refused to cooperate against Trump in the investigation. Nauta was charged alongside Trump last year in a federal case accusing them of conspiring to conceal boxes of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s estate in Palm Beach, Florida.

The defense lawyer also said a prosecutor in the case had warned him earlier in the investigation that he needed to be careful or he would “mess up” his bid for a Washington, D.C., judgeship, a comment Woodward interpreted as designed to get him to pressure Nauta to assist the inquiry.

But David Harbach, a prosecutor with Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith’s team, which brought the case, called Woodward’s allegations “garbage” and “fantasy.” He said the statements attributed to his colleague, Jay Bratt, had been taken out of context. Woodward said he would be willing to testify under oath about the exchange.

The encounter laid bare the simmering tensions between the two sides in a case that has been mired in delays and slowed by legal disputes that the Trump-appointed judge, Aileen Cannon, has yet to resolve. The case, among four criminal prosecutions against Trump, had been set for trial on May 20 but Cannon canceled the trial date earlier this month.

Woodward conceded to Cannon that there was insufficient evidence to dismiss the indictment on grounds of vindictive prosecution. But he said there was enough for her to order prosecutors to turn over all communication they had about Nauta to see if hostility existed.

He said he believed his client was only being prosecuted because he refused to testify against Trump and because he asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination by refusing to testify a second time before a grand jury.

“There was a campaign to get Mr. Nauta to cooperate in the first federal prosecution of a former president of the United States and when he refused, they prosecuted him,” Woodward told the judge. “That’s a violation of his constitutional rights.”

Prosecutor Harbach pushed back on Woodward’s arguments, saying it was common for defendants to be offered better treatment if they cooperate,

“There is not a single bit of evidence of animus toward Mr. Nauta,” Harbach said,

Trump was not present for the hearing. The GOP presumptive presidential nominee for 2024 has pleaded not guilty and denied any wrongdoing.

The arguments came one day after a newly unsealed motion revealed that defense lawyers are seeking to exclude evidence from the boxes of records that FBI agents seized during an August 2022 search of Mar-a-Lago.

The defense lawyers asserted in the motion that the search was unconstitutional and illegal and the FBI affidavit filed in justification of it was tainted by misrepresentations.

Smith’s team rejected each of those accusations and defended the investigative approach as “measured” and “graduated.” It said the search warrant was obtained after investigators collected surveillance video showing what it said was a concerted effort to conceal the boxes of classified documents inside the property.

“The warrant was supported by a detailed affidavit that established probable cause and did not omit any material information. And the warrant provided ample guidance to the FBI agents who conducted the search. Trump identifies no plausible basis to suppress the fruits of that search,” prosecutors wrote.

The defense motion was filed in February but was made public on Tuesday, along with hundreds of pages of documents from the investigation that were filed to the case docket in Florida.

Those include a previously sealed opinion last year from the then-chief judge of the federal court in Washington, which said that Trump’s lawyers, months after the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, had turned over four additional documents with classification markings that were found in Trump’s bedroom.

That March 2023 opinion from U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell directed a former lead lawyer for Trump in the case to abide by a grand jury subpoena and to turn over materials to investigators, rejecting defense arguments that their cooperation was prohibited by attorney-client privilege and concluding that prosecutors had made a “prima facie” showing that Trump had committed a crime.


Tucker reported from Washington.

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