Thu. Sep 28th, 2023


Former president Donald Trump’s political action committee is paying legal bills for some key witnesses involved in the Justice Department investigation into whether Trump mishandled classified documents, obstructed the investigation or destroyed government records, according to people familiar with the matter.

The witnesses include Kash Patel, who has testified in front of the grand jury and is key to Trump’s defense, along with Walt Nauta, a potentially critical prosecution witness, according to these people, who like others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing criminal probe. Nauta, a Trump valet, has told FBI agents he was instructed by the former president to move boxes at Mar-a-Lago, even as government investigators were trying to recover classified documents at that private club and residence, according to people familiar with the matter.

Both Patel and Nauta are represented by Brand Woodward Law, which according to public records has been paid more than $120,000 by Trump’s Save America PAC. Stan Brand, the top lawyer at the firm, said there is nothing improper about the PAC paying legal bills for witnesses in the investigation. Another lawyer not involved in the case, however, said it could encourage witnesses to not cooperate.

“There’s no bar against third parties paying for legal fees as long as it’s disclosed to the client. The ethical obligation of the lawyer is to the client,” Brand said. “This is a tempest in a teapot and another cheap shot at these people because of who they work for.”

But Jim Walden, a former federal prosecutor, said the payment arrangement raises concerns about whether the reimbursement of legal fees may influence what the witnesses say or do. And he noted that if Justice Department officials have ethical concerns, they could ask a judge to, at a minimum, question the clients about whether they are certain their interests are being protected.

“It looks like the Trump political action committee is either paying for the silence of these witnesses, for them to take the Fifth or for favorable testimony,” Walden said. “These circumstances should look very suspicious to the Justice Department, and there’s a judicial mechanism for them to get court oversight if there’s a conflict.”

Other witnesses represented by Brand Woodward whose legal bills are being paid by Trump’s PAC include Trump’s longtime adviser Dan Scavino, and at least one other personal aide who has testified in front of the grand jury, the people familiar with the matter said.

“We don’t comment on any vendor payments, and everything the group spends on is publicly reported and in accordance with the law,” said Steven Cheung, a Trump spokesman.

A timeline of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago documents

Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics emeritus at NYU Law School, said such arrangements are common in the corporate world and should only be concerning in some circumstances.

“The problems arise when the person paying the fee chooses the lawyer, and has an interest in how the lawyer represents the client,” Gillers said.

He cited the case of former Trump White House staffer Cassidy Hutchinson, “who became a whole lot more cooperative” with the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol after she switched lawyers.

Gillers noted that the Justice Department can ask a judge to remove a lawyer from a case if it has reason to think the lawyer is not acting in the client’s interests.

Trump has been willing to have his PAC pay the bills of aides who are loyal to him or continue to work for him, the people familiar with the matter said. The Republican National Committee has paid legal bills for Trump advisers in the past, including during probes of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and has shouldered more than $1.5 million in legal bills for Trump since he left office.

The PAC is the subject of a federal investigation for its fundraising tactics around false claims that the election was stolen. Separately, federal investigators have issued subpoenas seeking details about the formation and operation of the PAC, as part of the Justice Department probe of efforts by Trump and his allies to reverse the results of the 2020 election. Those subpoenas, according to people familiar with them, sought a wide range of information about how the PAC raised and spent money.

Trump’s motive in Mar-a-Lago case seen as ego, not money

Trump has wanted to keep a large sum of money in the PAC because there are no restrictions on how those funds may be used, one of the people familiar with the situation said; but he has frustrated fellow Republicans by being wary at times of spending the funds.

The PAC has spent $9.7 million on legal bills since 2021, according to a Washington Post review of its filings, about 14 percent of its spending during that period. That includes legal bills for separate investigations into Trump’s business in New York and his post-2020 election conduct in Georgia, according to people familiar with the matter.

In New York, for example, one firm led by Philadelphia lawyer Michael van der Veen is guaranteed $25,000 per month from the president’s PAC for his work on New York legal cases, according to an agreement reviewed by The Post. The PAC paid van der Veen’s firm at least $369,000 in 2022, according to filings, and the firm has billed the PAC at least $230,000 since the last filings, according to documents reviewed by The Post.

Trump is equipped to keep making many more such payments. His PAC, which mostly raises money from small-dollar donors, had nearly $70 million on hand as of its most recent filing, submitted in late October.

Mar-a-Lago classified papers held sensitive secrets about Iran, China

It’s not unusual for the same lawyer or law firm to represent multiple witnesses in an investigation, as the Brand Woodward firm is doing in the Mar-a-Lago probe. One of their clients, Scavino, has been represented by the firm since before Trump left office.

Brand said there is little difference between the current situation and his past work representing George Stephanopoulos, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton. In that case, the government — not a PAC paid for some of his representation when Stephanopoulos was subpoenaed by a congressional committee.

If the government were to try to stop the reimbursement for legal work from Trump’s political arm, Brand said, that would be an unfair attempt to “squeeze witnesses into cooperating by cutting off their ability to defend themselves.”

The Justice Department is investigating Trump’s possession of hundreds of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago after he left office, including 103 documents that remained at the property after Trump and his legal team responded to a grand jury subpoena seeking the return of all such material.

Some of the documents recovered by the FBI in a court-approved search contained highly classified information, including about a foreign country’s nuclear capabilities, intelligence activity in China and Iran’s missile system, The Post has reported.

The Justice Department is also investigating attempts by Trump and his allies to reverse President Biden’s 2020 election victory. Attorney General Merrick Garland last month appointed a special counsel to oversee both investigations, citing Trump’s decision to run for president again in 2024 and Biden’s intent to seek reelection.

Prosecutors involved in each investigation have presented multiple witnesses to grand juries at the federal courthouse in Washington. On Friday, two former Trump White House lawyers, Pat Cipollone and Patrick Philbin, testified to a grand jury on election-related matters, according to people familiar with the matter; three other Trump aides, including Scavino, testified Thursday to a grand jury about the Mar-a-Lago documents. The testimony of the three aides was first reported by the New York Times.

When Patel was first brought before a grand jury in October, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination as grounds to not answer questions, according to people familiar with the matter. But after conferring with a federal judge, he was given a limited-use immunity and brought back before the panel to answer questions in November.

Prosecutors are still seeking to secure cooperation from Trump’s valet, Nauta, who continues to work for the former president even as he has become a potentially critical witness in the case.

When Nauta was first questioned by the FBI, he denied any knowledge or awareness of sensitive documents at Mar-a-Lago, people familiar with the case said. When questioned a second time, however, his story changed significantly, these people said; he told investigators he moved boxes at Trump’s direction, after the grand jury subpoena was delivered demanding the return of any documents with classified markings.

Nauta is in a precarious legal position because it’s unclear whether prosecutors may try to pursue a false-statement charge against him, or otherwise pressure him to cooperate against Trump.

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