A report published by the Washington Post claims that money from Donald Trump’s political action committee paid the legal bills of some witnesses involved in the US justice department’s criminal inquiry into the former president’s improper handling of classified documents.
They include the former Trump adviser Kash Patel, who was granted immunity last month for his grand jury testimony, the newspaper says, citing anonymous sources said to be familiar with the matter.
Another is the valet Walt Nauda, who told FBI agents that he had moved boxes at Trump’s direction around his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida while the government was trying to retrieve documents and records that should have been preserved in Washington DC, according to the Post.
The payment of witnesses’ legal fees by a political group whose purse strings Trump controls, while not illegal, raises ethical concerns and poses a conflict, the Post says.
It quotes former federal prosecutor Jim Walden, who questioned if the payments to witnesses’ lawyers by the Trump fund influenced their testimony or level of cooperation.
“It looks like the Trump political action committee is either paying for the silence of these witnesses, for them to take the fifth [amendment] or for favorable testimony,” he said, referring to the constitutional protection against self-incrimination.
“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.”
Federal investigators are already looking into Trump Save America Pac, and in September subpoenaed two of the former president’s advisers, senior aide Stephen Miller and ex-director of White House political affairs Brian Jack, over fundraising for efforts to reverse his 2020 election defeat.
The Guardian has reported previously how Trump retained documents bearing classification markings, along with communications from after his presidency, at his Florida resort following his departure from the White House in January 2021.
FBI agents raided Trump’s private members’ club in August and uncovered thousands of documents, including hundreds marked classified, that his legal team insisted had already been returned to government archives. Nauda, the valet, told FBI investigators that Trump directed him to move boxes of documents around the property.
The justice department’s criminal investigation is looking into whether Trump mishandled national security information, including whether he destroyed documents.
Patel, who has already appeared before a grand jury in the case, is a key witness for his knowledge of the final days of the Trump administration and whether the ousted president, as he has insisted, moved to declassify documents he took with him to Florida.
A judge granted immunity to Patel, who served in several lower-level positions in the Trump government, last month, ruling that the offer was the only way to guarantee his testimony. The Post report appears to cast doubt on the authenticity of that evidence.
The report says Patel and Nauta are represented by the Washington DC attorneys Brand Woodward Law, which according to its website has experience in “white-collar defense” and “government and congressional investigations”.
Public records show Trump’s Pac paid more than $120,000 to the firm. Stan Brand, the firm’s leading lawyer, told the Post there was “nothing improper” about the payments.
“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.”
The justice department investigation has ramped up in recent weeks, with the attorney general, Merrick Garland, appointing an independent special counsel last month to oversee its pace and direction. The veteran prosecutor and former justice department official Jack Smith will also supervise a parallel inquiry into Trump’s efforts to subvert the 2020 election.
The former president suffered a significant blow last week in his attempt to delay the documents inquiry when a federal appeals court removed a special master previously appointed to review the seized papers.
It paved the way for the justice department to regain access to the entirety of the materials for use in the criminal investigation.