The day before a key meeting last year between an attorney for former President Donald J. Trump and officials seeking to recover classified documents in Mr. Trump’s possession, a maintenance worker from the former president’s private club saw an aide move boxes to a storage space, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The maintenance worker offered to help the aide — Walt Nauta, Mr. Trump’s valet at the White House — move the boxes and eventually lend a hand. But the worker had no idea what was in the boxes, said the person familiar with the case. The maintenance worker shared that account with federal prosecutors, the person said.
The employee’s account is potentially important to prosecutors as they gather details about how Mr. Trump handled sensitive documents he took with him when he left the White House, and whether he undertook efforts by the Justice Department and the National Archives to retrieve them. recovery hindered.
Mr. Trump was found to have kept some documents in the storage room where Mr. Nauta and the maintenance worker were moving boxes the day before the Justice Department’s top counterintelligence officer, Jay Bratt, last traveled to Mar-a-Lago June to request the return of all government materials in the former president’s possession.
Mr. Nauta and the worker took the boxes to the room before the storage unit was searched that same day by M. Evan Corcoran, an attorney for Mr. Trump who was in conversation with Mr. Bratt. Mr. Corcoran called Justice Department officials that evening to set up a meeting for the next day. He believed he did not have security clearance to carry documents with secret markings, a person familiar with his decision said.
Weeks earlier, the Justice Department had issued a subpoena demanding the return of the documents. Prosecutors have been trying to determine whether Mr. Trump had documents moved at Mar-a-Lago or tried to hide some of them after the subpoena.
Part of their interest is trying to determine if any documents were moved before Mr. Corcoran himself went through the boxes ahead of a meeting with Justice Department officials who wanted to retrieve them. Prosecutors have asked witnesses about the role of Mr. Nauta and the maintenance worker, whose names have not been made public, in moving documents around that time.
During his trip to Mar-a-Lago on June 3, Mr. Bratt delivered a package of about three dozen documents with secret markings from a lawyer to Mr. Trump. Mr. Bratt also received a letter, drafted by Mr. Corcoran but signed by another attorney for the former president, confirming that additional material had been diligently sought in response to the subpoena and none had been found. Mr. Bratt was not allowed access to search the storage room at the time.
The detail about the timing of Mr. Nauta’s interaction with the maintenance worker was previously reported by The Washington Post. A lawyer for Mr Nauta declined to comment. A lawyer for the maintenance worker would not discuss the matter publicly.
The New York Times reported this month that prosecutors had obtained cooperation from a witness who worked at Mar-a-Lago. The witness provided the investigators with, among other things, a photo of the salvage.
The investigation, overseen by Special Counsel, Jack Smith, is showing signs of entering its final phase, and this week lawyers for Mr Trump — who is the current front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination — called for a meeting to discuss the matter with Attorney General Merrick B. Garland.
Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump, called the investigation a “targeted, politically motivated witch hunt against President Trump designed to interfere in elections and prevent the American people from sending him back to the White House.”
He added that prosecutors have been harassing “anyone and anyone who works, has worked or supports President Trump” and alleged that Mr. Trump had attempted to cooperate with the Justice Department.
Prosecutors have questioned witnesses about Mr Trump’s possible motive for having the documents.
They have subpoenaed information about Mr. Trump’s business dealings with foreign countries since he became president. And witnesses have told them that some aides may have known that Mr. Trump still had documents in his possession after the first 15 boxes of government materials — found to contain classified documents — were turned over to the National Archives in January 2022 after sustained efforts. by the archives to retrieve the material, said persons informed.
One of the most prominent witnesses in recent months was Mr Corcoran, who met with Mr Bratt of the Justice Department last June and drafted the letter stating that a diligent search had turned up no further documents.
In March, prosecutors successfully breached Mr Corcoran’s attorney-client privilege with Mr Trump under the crime-fraud exception, a provision of the law that can be used when investigators have evidence that the services of an attorney may have been used in the commission of a crime. crime.
Judge Beryl A. Howell, then the chief judge presiding over grand jury cases in Washington’s Federal District Court, found that prosecutors had provided sufficient evidence that Mr. Trump knowingly misled Mr. Corcoran about the documents he still owned.
The Times previously reported that Judge Howell, writing in a sealed memorandum, described what she called Mr Trump’s “deception” in his dealings with the National Archives in 2021 and early last year, saying it was “apparently a dress rehearsal” was for how he handled the grand jury subpoena last May, according to a person who was aware of the contents of the memo.
In the sealed memo outlining her rationale for ruling that Mr. Corcoran should not be protected by attorney-client privilege, Judge Howell cited numerous examples of what prosecutors considered evidence of possible obstruction and unlawful possession of government materials on the case from Mr. Trump. share, said the person who knew about the content.
“Other evidence shows that the former president deliberately tried to withhold classified documents when he was not authorized to do so, and he knew it,” Ms Howell wrote, the person said.
Judge Howell acknowledged that the standard to meet the crime-fraud exception is lower than what would be required to press charges or win a jury verdict, the person familiar with what she wrote said. Still, the judge made it clear that she believed the government had reached the threshold, both for obstructing the grand jury’s proceedings and for “unauthorized retention of national defense information,” the person said.
“The administration has provided sufficient evidence that the former president possessed tangible documents containing national defense information,” she wrote, adding that they showed that he “did not deliver those documents to an officer entitled to receive them.”
At another time, Judge Howell spoke about Mr Trump’s intent and state of mind and said the administration had also provided sufficient evidence to show that the former president had deliberately withheld the classified documents, the person said.
She also noted that a further search of Trump properties late last year, conducted by experts on behalf of Trump after pressure from prosecutors, turned up additional documents with secret markings in his bedroom at Mar-a-Lago, the person responsible for the document had been informed. said.
“In particular, no excuse is given for how the former president could have missed the secret-marked documents found in his own bedroom at Mar-a-Lago,” Judge Howell wrote, according to the person briefed on the contents. from her memo.