Trump’s Save America PAC paying legal bills for Mar-a-Lago witnesses

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Former President Donald Trump’s Political Action Committee paying legal bills for some key witnesses involved in the Justice Department’s investigation into whether Trump mishandled classified documents, obstructed the investigation or destroyed government records, according to people familiar with the matter.

The witnesses include Kash Patel, who testified before the grand jury and is key to Trump’s defense, along with Walt Nauta, a potentially critical prosecution witness, according to these people, who like others interviewed spoke on condition of anonymity to discusses an ongoing criminal investigation. Nauta, a Trump aide, told FBI agents he was directed by the former president to move boxes at Mar-a-Lago even as government investigators tried to retrieve classified documents from that private club and residence, according to the people who is familiar with the matter.

Both Patel and Nauta are represented by Brand Woodward Law, which public records show was paid more than $120,000 by Trump’s Save America PAC. Stan Brand, the top attorney at the firm, said there was nothing improper about the PAC paying legal bills for witnesses in the investigation. However, another lawyer not involved in the case said it could encourage witnesses to not cooperate.

“There is no bar against third parties paying legal fees as long as this is disclosed to the client. The ethical obligation of the lawyer is towards the client,” said Brand. “It’s a tempest in a teapot and another cheap shot at these people because of who they work for.”

But Jim Walden, a former federal prosecutor, said the payment arrangement raises concerns about whether the reimbursement of legal fees could influence what the witnesses say or do. And he noted that if Justice Department officials have ethical concerns, they can ask a judge to at least question the clients about whether they are sure their interests are being protected.

“It appears that the Trump Political Action Committee is either paying for the silence of these witnesses, for them to take the fifth or for favorable testimony,” Walden said. “These circumstances should look very suspicious to the Department of Justice, and there is a judicial mechanism for them to get court supervision if there is a conflict.”

Other witnesses represented by Brand Woodward whose legal bills are paid by Trump’s PAC include longtime Trump adviser Dan Scavino, and at least one other personal aide who testified before the grand jury, the people familiar with the matter said.

“We do not comment on any vendor payments, and everything the group spends on is publicly reported and in accordance with the law,” said Steven Cheung, a Trump spokesman.

A timeline of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago documents

Stephen Gillers, an emeritus professor of legal ethics at NYU Law School, said such arrangements are common in the corporate world and should be of concern only in some circumstances.

“The problems arise when the person paying the fee chooses the attorney, and has an interest in how the attorney represents the client,” Gillers said.

He cited the case of former Trump White House staffer Cassidy Hutchinson, “who was much more cooperative” with the House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol after she switched attorneys.

Gillers noted that the Justice Department can ask a judge to remove a lawyer from a case if it has reason to think the lawyer is not acting in the client’s best interest.

Trump was willing to have his PAC pay the bills of aides who are loyal to him or continue to work for him, the people familiar with the matter said. The Republican National Committee has paid legal bills for Trump advisers in the past, including during investigations into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and has incurred more than $1.5 million in legal bills for Trump since he left office.

The PAC is the subject of a federal investigation for its fundraising tactics surrounding false allegations that the election was rigged. Separately, federal investigators issued subpoenas seeking details about the PAC’s formation and operations as part of the Justice Department’s probe into efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Those subpoenas, according to people familiar with them, sought a wide variety of information about how the PAC raised and spent money.

Trump’s motive in Mar-a-Lago case seen as ego, not money

Trump wanted to keep a large sum of money in the PAC because there are no restrictions on how those funds may be used, one of the people familiar with the situation said; but he frustrated fellow Republicans by sometimes being cautious about spending the funds.

The PAC has spent $9.7 million on legal bills since 2021, according to a Washington Post review of its filings, about 14 percent of its spending during that period. That includes legal bills for separate investigations into Trump’s business in New York and his conduct after the 2020 election in Georgia, according to people familiar with the matter.

In New York, for example, one firm led by Philadelphia attorney Michael van der Veen is guaranteed $25,000 a month from the president’s PAC for its work on New York legal cases, according to an agreement reviewed by The Post. The PAC paid van der Veen’s firm at least $369,000 in 2022, according to filings, and the firm billed the PAC at least $230,000 since the last filings, according to documents reviewed by The Post.

Trump is equipped to keep making many more such payments. His PAC, which mostly raises money from small-dollar donors, had nearly $70 million on hand as of its most recent filing, filed in late October.

Mar-a-Lago classified papers have sensitive secrets about Iran, China

It is not unusual for the same lawyer or law firm to represent several witnesses in an investigation, as the Brand Woodward firm does in the Mar-a-Lago investigation. One of their clients, Scavino, has been represented by the firm since Trump left office.

Brand said there is little difference between the current situation and his previous work representing George Stephanopoulos, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton. In that case, the government – not a PAC paid for some of his representation when Stephanopoulos was subpoenaed by a congressional committee.

If the government were to try to withhold compensation for legal work from Trump’s political arm, Brand said, it would be an unfair attempt to “pressure witnesses to cooperate by cutting off their ability to defend themselves. “

The Justice Department is investigating Trump’s possession of hundreds of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago after he left office, including 103 documents that remained at the property after Trump and his legal team responded to a grand jury subpoena that the request return of all such material. .

Some of the documents found by the FBI in a court-approved search contain highly classified information, including about a foreign country’s nuclear capabilities, intelligence activity in China and Iran’s missile system, The Post reported.

The Justice Department is also investigating efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn President Biden’s 2020 election victory. Attorney General Merrick Garland last month appointed a special counsel to oversee both investigations, citing Trump’s decision to run for president again in 2024 and Biden’s intention to seek re-election.

Prosecutors involved in each investigation presented several witnesses to grand juries at the federal courthouse in Washington. On Friday, two former Trump White House lawyers, Pat Cipollone and Patrick Philbin, testified to a grand jury on election-related matters, according to people familiar with the matter; three other Trump aides, including Scavino, testified to a grand jury Thursday about the Mar-a-Lago documents. The testimony of the three assistants was first reported by the New York Times.

When Patel was first brought before a grand jury in October, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination as grounds for not answering questions, according to people familiar with the case. But after conferring with a federal judge, he was granted limited-use immunity and brought back before the panel to answer questions in November.

Prosecutors are still seeking cooperation from Trump’s valet, Nauta, who continues to work for the former president even as he has become a potentially critical witness in the case.

When Nauta was first questioned by the FBI, he denied any knowledge or awareness of sensitive documents at Mar-a-Lago, people familiar with the matter said. However, when he was interviewed a second time, his story changed significantly, these people said; he told investigators he moved boxes in Trump’s direction, after the grand jury was served with a subpoena demanding the return of any documents with classified markings.

Nauta is in an uncertain legal position because it is unclear whether prosecutors may try to bring a perjury charge against him, or otherwise pressure him to cooperate against Trump.

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