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. [Continue reading…]