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Trump aide Walt Nauta front and center during contentious hearing in classified documents case

Washington — As former President Donald Trump's "hush money" criminal trial in New York proceeds to closing arguments next week, the legal focus is moving south. His attorneys and longtime aide Walt Nauta appeared before Florida federal Judge Aileen Cannon, where they sparred with prosecutors during two contentious, day-long hearings on Wednesday. 

Nauta was charged last year alongside the former president by special counsel Jack Smith. They're accused of participating in a scheme to impede the Justice Department's investigation into Trump's handling of classified records. Prosecutors alleged they worked together to conceal boxes of documents at Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence that were of interest to investigators who were trying to return sensitive government records to the federal government. Nauta is also accused of making false statements to investigators. 

Trump, Nauta, and a third codefendant, Carlos de Oliveria — a former Mar-a-Lago employee with whom Smith says Nauta allegedly unsuccessfully tried to delete security camera footage — have all pleaded not guilty. Nauta was the only defendant present for Wednesday's hearings.

The proceedings in Judge Cannon's courtroom focused on Nauta's bid to dismiss the charges against him. He accused Justice Department prosecutors of opting to bring the charges against him because of his decision not to flip against the former president and cooperate with the investigation. Trump has levied similar selective prosecution accusations against the special counsel's team. 

Nauta voluntarily sat for an interview with the FBI in 2022 and later testified before a grand jury, his attorneys pointed out in court documents. They said he made the decision not to incriminate himself after he learned he was a target of the federal probe, and that decision was a "guarantee by right under the U.S. Constitution." They alleged he had been vindictively charged because he did not fully cooperate. 

But prosecutors rejected those claims as "legally and factually flawed" and argued in court papers that he was ultimately charged because he broke the law and was caught on security camera video moving boxes. 

During Wednesday's hearing, Nauta's attorney, Stanley Woodward, told Cannon, "Other people helped move boxes, but they weren't charged because they didn't exercise their 5th Amendment right." He urged the judge to allow Nauta's claims to move forward and asked her to push for more evidence to be turned over, which prosecutors staunchly opposed. 

Portions of Wednesday's hearings turned to allegations by Woodward that one of Smith's two prosecutors, Jay Bratt, sought to induce Nauta's cooperation in the probe by improperly mentioning a judgeship for which Woodward was under consideration. 

The special counsel has rejected those assertions and Woodward's interpretation of the events. 

Walt Nauta, an aide to former President Donald Trump, follows Trump as they board his airplane, known as Trump Force One, en route to Iowa at Palm Beach International Airport on March 13, 2023, in West Palm Beach, Florida.
FILE: Walt Nauta, an aide to former President Donald Trump, follows Trump as they board his airplane en route to Iowa at Palm Beach International Airport on March 13, 2023, in West Palm Beach, Florida. Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The alleged conversation took place at the Justice Department before the charges against Trump and his co-defendants were filed. It was the subject of sealed litigation in Washington, D.C., and documents related to the matter were later unsealed. 

David Harbach, an attorney in Smith's office, pushed back hard Tuesday, telling Cannon that Woodward's arguments were "difficult to sit through." He called the attempts to get the case dismissed "garbage" and characterized the allegations as "fantasy." 

"This is procedural gamesmanship," Harbach insisted. "Where is the evidence that this is a vindictive prosecution?" He said prosecutors had no "animus" for Nauta, arguing that Nauta became a target because "there is no one that did all the things that he did." 

Cannon did not rule on Nauta's motions and gave no indication about whether she would allow further discovery on the matter. 

The case was originally supposed to go to trial this month, but Cannon has indefinitely delayed the start date, citing mounting pretrial motions she has to address. Several  hearings are now set throughout the summer months. 

Surveillance photo that appears to show Walt Nauta carrying boxes of files at Mar-a-Lago, from U.S. Government exhibit filed May 21, 2024. Government exhibit

Wednesday's hearings came a day after Cannon unsealed court documents from the federal probe that revealed Trump's attorneys had recovered classified documents in his Florida bedroom after the FBI had executed a search warrant on the property in 2022. 

The filings also showed that prosecutors suspected Trump and Nauta apparently aimed to further impede the federal probe once they discovered investigators had access to security cameras at the Florida resort. 

Photos from surveillance camera footage that appeared to show Nauta moving boxes at Mar-a-Lago were also released in the unsealed records. 

Daniel Shepherd reported from Ft. Pierce, Florida. 

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