Federal prosecutors investigating former President Donald J. Trump’s handling of national security documents he took with him from the White House have ratcheted up their pressure in recent weeks on key witnesses in the hopes of gaining their testimony, according to two people briefed on the matter.
The effort by the Justice Department shows how the investigation is entering a new phase as prosecutors seek to push recalcitrant witnesses to cooperate with them.
A key focus for prosecutors is Walt Nauta, a little-known figure who worked in the White House as a military valet and cook when Mr. Trump was president and later for him personally at Mar-a-Lago, the former president’s private club and residence in Florida.
Prosecutors have indicated they are skeptical of an initial account Mr. Nauta gave investigators about moving documents stored at Mar-a-Lago and are using the specter of charges against him for misleading investigators to persuade him to sit again for questioning, according to two people briefed on the matter.
At the same time, the prosecutors are trying to force a longtime aide and ally to Mr. Trump, Kash Patel, to answer questions before a grand jury about how the documents were taken to Mar-a-Lago and how Mr. Trump, his aides and his lawyers dealt with requests from the government to return them, according to a person briefed on the matter.
Mr. Patel was designated by Mr. Trump this year as one of his representatives to the National Archives and Records Administration to deal with his presidential records, particularly in relation to materials from the investigation into whether Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign had ties to Russia.
Shortly after the F.B.I. executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago in August to reclaim the classified documents, Mr. Patel publicly proclaimed that the former president had declassified the records before leaving office. But Mr. Patel refused to answer many questions this month before a grand jury in Washington hearing evidence about Mr. Trump’s handling of the documents, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, according to a person briefed on the matter.
In response, prosecutors asked a top federal judge in Washington to force Mr. Patel to testify — a move fought by Mr. Patel’s lawyers, who are concerned the government wants to use Mr. Patel’s own statements to incriminate him. CNN reported on Thursday that Mr. Patel had appeared before a grand jury.
The efforts to gain the testimony of Mr. Nauta and Mr. Patel demonstrate how department officials will have to make decisions in the coming weeks and months about whether to charge the witnesses, offer them cooperation agreements, grant them immunity or give up on trying to obtain their testimony, according to the people briefed on the matter.
Prosecutors loathe giving witnesses immunity, particularly in high-profile cases, because it makes it significantly more difficult to prosecute the individual who has received it, according to legal experts. Instead, prosecutors favor entering into cooperation agreements, in which the witness agrees to answer investigators’ questions in exchange for not being charged or a recommendation for a shorter prison sentence.
The Justice Department declined to comment.
In May, prosecutors issued a subpoena for all classified documents that Mr. Trump still had in his possession after returning 15 boxes of government material in January. And after investigators became convinced that the former president and his lawyers had not turned over all the material in his possession, the F.B.I. conducted the court-authorized search of Mar-a-Lago in August, hauling away a trove of about 22,000 pages of documents.
The inquiry became bogged down one month later when a federal judge in Florida, at Mr. Trump’s request, appointed an independent arbiter, known as a special master, to review the seized material for anything that might be shielded from the investigation by attorney-client or executive privilege.
The special master’s work is proceeding on a separate track from the main investigation and has been rife with disputes. But on Monday, the Justice Department and Mr. Trump’s lawyers finally laid to rest one issue, saying in a letter that they had resolved all of their disagreements concerning about 500 pages of the seized material that were potentially protected by attorney-client privilege.
Proving intent is often a challenge for prosecutors, and that hurdle has repeatedly come up in various investigations into Mr. Trump. To that end, prosecutors are particularly focused on Mr. Nauta because he could provide insight into Mr. Trump’s intentions as he parried the Justice Department’s attempts to reclaim the documents from him at the same time the materials were moved around at Mar-a-Lago.
If the boxes were moved against the Justice Department’s wishes or to conceal them from the authorities, it could help prosecutors in developing the obstruction investigation.
Mr. Nauta, a native of Guam and a U.S. Navy sailor, grew close to Mr. Trump during the White House years, when he worked as a cook in the Navy mess in the White House and then as a valet in the West Wing. He was a frequent presence around Mr. Trump, bringing him the Diet Cokes he often consumes or carting things to and from the White House residence for him.
When Mr. Trump became a private citizen, Mr. Nauta joined him at Mar-a-Lago, working as something of an all-purpose aide.
Security camera footage obtained by investigators showed Mr. Nauta moving boxes out of a storage area at Mar-a-Lago, raising the questions about whether they were moved at Mr. Trump’s behest to conceal them from the authorities or Mr. Trump’s own lawyers, who were dealing with demands that he return the documents.
Mr. Trump’s legal team is in possession of its own copy of the surveillance footage, which covers a hallway in the basement of Mar-a-Lago, and has closely guarded who gets to see it, taking great precautions with its digital storage and distribution, according to two people briefed on the matter.
Investigators have interviewed Mr. Nauta at least twice and are skeptical that he was frank with them about his role in moving the boxes. The authorities did not show him the video footage during the interviews, according to two of the people familiar with the matter. But at one point he gave an answer that investigators found contradictory to one he had provided earlier.
In a later interview, Mr. Nauta said he had taken boxes to Mr. Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago. One person briefed on that interview said he was clear with investigators that Mr. Trump had directed him to, while another said that he was less specific about who had told him to do so, but that the implication was that it was Mr. Trump.
One of the people familiar with the matter said that Mr. Nauta was candid with investigators each time he was interviewed, but that the questions put to him changed over time. Still, the differences left investigators with the impression that he had misled them, potentially giving the authorities leverage over him in discussions about his further cooperation.
At some point while Mr. Nauta was engaged with the Justice Department about the boxes, he changed lawyers, hiring two Washington criminal defense attorneys, two people familiar with the matter said.
Mr. Nauta is not the only witness whose statements the Justice Department is relying on. Officials have interviewed several people who work for Mr. Trump as they have sought information about how the boxes were handled.
Mr. Patel, who has repeatedly railed against the Russia investigation’s origins and who was the chief of staff to the acting defense secretary in the final months of the Trump White House, is a Trump loyalist who drew intense criticism from some of Mr. Trump’s top advisers. In his final weeks in office, Mr. Trump wanted to make Mr. Patel the deputy director of the C.I.A., an attempt that was blocked by officials such as the White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone.
Earlier in 2020, former Attorney General William P. Barr wrote in his memoir, Mr. Trump sought to name Mr. Patel the deputy director of the F.B.I. Mr. Barr recounted telling the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, that appointing Mr. Patel — someone he considered unqualified — would happen “over my dead body.”
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