'Garbage argument': Classified docs hearing gets heated over charges against Trump co-defendant Walt Nauta

Nauta is accused of obstructing the government's classified documents probe.

May 22, 2024, 6:48 PM

A hearing in former President Donald Trump's federal classified documents case got heated at times on Wednesday as prosecutors with special counsel Jack's Smith's office became frustrated with what they called "nonsense" arguments presented by Trump's co-defendant Walt Nauta in his effort to have the indictment against Nauta dismissed.

"That was difficult to sit through for lots of reasons," prosecutor David Harbach said of arguments made by Nauta's attorney Stanley Woodward. "It's a garbage argument to begin with."

Nauta, Trump's longtime aide, and Carlos De Oliveira, the property manager at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate pleaded not guilty last August to obstruction charges related to alleged attempts to delete Mar-a-Lago surveillance footage, after Trump pleaded not guilty in June to 37 criminal counts related to his handling of classified materials after leaving the White House.

Prosecutors have accused Nauta of lying to the FBI in May of 2022 when he told agents that that he was unaware of boxes being brought to Trump's residence and said he didn't know where they had been stored before they were taken there.

Nauta's attorneys are seeking to have the charges against him dismissed on the basis that he is being "selectively" and "vindictively" prosecuted by investigators. At Wednesday's hearing, Woodward said Nauta was being "selectively prosecuted," as there were numerous others who also moved boxes at Mar-a-Lago but are not being prosecuted.

Harbach disputed that contention, saying there is "not a person who did everything Nauta did" -- including allegations of perjury and efforts to destroy evidence.

"The only people who are comparable to him are his co-defendants," Harbach said.

Woodward also claims that during an August 2022 meeting that he had with prosecutors, Woodward was pressured improperly by a member of Smith's team over a pending judicial appointment.

PHOTO: Walt Nauta (2L), aide to former President Donald Trump, arrives at the Alto Lee Adams Sr. courthouse in Fort Pierce, Fla., on May 22, 2024.
Walt Nauta (2L), aide to former President Donald Trump, arrives at the Alto Lee Adams Sr. courthouse in Fort Pierce, Fla., on May 22, 2024.
Marco Bello/AFP via Getty Images

By Woodward's account, prosecutor Jay Bratt asked him about his pending appointment on the D.C. Superior Court and implied that Woodward's affiliation with Trump might negatively affect his confirmation.

The special counsel wholeheartedly disputes these claims, and pointed out in court that Woodward's account of what happened during the meeting has been inconsistent.

"Mr. Woodward's story about what happened at that meeting is a fantasy; it did not happen," Harbach exclaimed.

When U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon repeated certain quotes that Woodward claimed the prosecutors allegedly made during that August 2022 meeting, and pressed the prosecution on why those comments had to be made and whether those comments were professional, Harbach, after consulting his colleagues, did not dispute the comments but claimed they were "fragmented" and "out of context."

At one point, Judge Cannon asked for Harbach to "just calm down" when he became emotional while answering her questions about whether there had been any effort to preserve evidence related to the meeting in question.

"That is not true!" Harbach said after Cannon suggested the government hadn't made an any efforts to preserve evidence. "That is not what I said ... the government has not done anything to destroy or obstruct evidence."

Cannon, meanwhile, did not appear highly satisfied with Woodward's argument, asking him multiple times if he could point to any evidence that suggests the alleged comments made to him in that meeting relate in any way to his client being unfairly prosecuted.

Cannon said she was not clear on the "connection between the allegations on comments made to you and how that affected Mr. Nauta not cooperating."

The core of Woodward's claim at the hearing was that his client is being "vindictively prosecuted" because of his refusal to testify before the grand jury and turn against Trump.

"Presumably, if Nauta had decided to cooperate, we'd all be friends here," Woodward said.

There were also some disputes as to when Nauta was made aware of the possibility that he is a target of the investigation and not just a witness.

Woodward claimed the Nauta was unaware of possible obstruction charges until he received his target letter, while the prosecution claimed that a November 2022 search warrant on Nauta's device was an indication of possible obstruction charges.

In a second hearing on Nauta's motion to dismiss, also held Wednesday, Woodward argued that the indictment should be thrown out on the basis that it has pleading deficiencies and fails to state specific offenses.

"Mr. Nauta cannot know what crimes he's supposed to have committed based on this indictment," Woodward said. "It's confusing. We're struggling to understand how these claims are going to be presented to the jury."

After Woodward alleged the special counsel hasn't been specific regarding the nature of Nauta's alleged conduct in some of the charges, Cannon responded that there are "a lot of alleged facts in the first 91 paragraphs of the indictment."

But the judge did seem to agree with the defense that some of the charges in the indictment as related to Nauta appeared similar and suggested that a jury may have a tough time differentiating them.

"Real people have to decide the issues," Cannon said.

When Cannon pressed him to describe the differences in the counts, prosecutor Jay Bratt argued that all of those specific counts that the defense took issue with "arise from the same underlying conduct" but are "distinct charges," and claimed these issues can be addressed through jury instructions.

Cannon ultimately told prosecutors that she understood the point they were making, but said, "I think it's going to be confusing for anyone to detect the differences," and added the jury instructions "will be a project to exercise with care."

Prosecutors similarly maintained many of the issues brought up by the defense could be addressed at trial.

At one point, as part of his argument that the indictment was "confusing," Woodward took particular issue with the fact that the special counsel refers to Trump's living quarters at Mar-a-Lago differently -- at times calling it Trump's "residence" and at other times calling it "Pine Hall," which is the name of his residence within the Mar-a-Lago property.

The judge did not rule from the bench and said she would take the motions "under advisement."

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