As the Jan. 6 committee’s work unfolded over the course of the year, investigators spoke to many witnesses who were represented by legal counsel. This wasn’t at all surprising.
What was surprising, however, was the entity paying those lawyers’ fees: More than a few Jan. 6 witnesses worked with attorneys whose bills were paid by Donald Trump’s Save America political action committee. The New York Times reported in June that the former president’s operation and its allies “have paid for or promised to finance the legal fees of more than a dozen witnesses called in the congressional investigation into the Jan. 6 attack, raising legal and ethical questions about whether the former president may be influencing testimony with a direct bearing on him.”
As we discussed soon after, the resulting dynamic was tough to defend: There were witnesses with potentially important information about Jan. 6; Trump likely preferred to keep that information under wraps; and those witnesses were represented by lawyers being paid by Trump’s political operation.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democratic member of the Jan. 6 committee, argued in June, “The potential for coercion in that case is pretty obvious.”
Six months later, as the investigation into the Republican’s Mar-a-Lago scandal advances, we’re confronting eerily similar circumstances. The Washington Post reported:
Former president Donald Trump’s political action committee is paying legal bills for some key witnesses involved in the Justice Department 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 has testified in front of 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 the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing criminal probe.
Nauta and Patel may not be household names, but in the context of the Mar-a-Lago scandal, few figures matter more.
As we discussed in October, Nauta is a longtime aide to Trump who was allegedly seen on security camera footage moving boxes out of a Mar-a-Lago storage room before and after the Justice Department issued a subpoena. By some accounts, federal law enforcement has reportedly interviewed Nauta “on several occasions” — and prosecutors have apparently expressed “skepticism“ about whether he was truthful in his initial account.
Patel, meanwhile, is a top aide to Trump whom the former president tapped to, among other things, coordinate with the National Archives on presidential records. When the Justice Department brought Patel before a grand jury to answer questions, he reportedly took the Fifth, invoking his right against self-incrimination.
In November, Patel and his lawyer reportedly negotiated an immunity deal as part of the investigation into the scandal.
The apparent fact that these witnesses’ legal fees are being covered by a Trump PAC, even as they testify about details in a Trump scandal, is bound to raise some eyebrows. Indeed, the Post spoke to Jim Walden, a former federal prosecutor, who agreed the payment arrangement raises concerns about influence.
“It looks like 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 Justice Department, and there’s a judicial mechanism for them to get court oversight if there’s a conflict.”
A top lawyer at Brand Woodward Law, the firm that’s received more than $120,000 from the Save America PAC, denied anything untoward. That said, I don’t imagine we’ve heard the last of this one.