Lost in the breathless headlines over the indictment of President Trump for alleged violations of the Espionage Act is a story that deserves much more attention than it has received thus far: the allegation that a senior official at the Department of Justice attempted to shake down Trump’s co-defendant’s lawyer. It is a scandal in the making that could result in the investigation of senior DOJ officials, which should lead to public congressional hearings, and that might even result in the entire case against Trump being dismissed.
Trump’s co-defendant is Waltine “Walt” Nauta, a Navy valet who served in Trump’s White House and who remained a personal aide to Trump after he left office. Several weeks ago, Nauta’s lawyer, a distinguished, highly-regarded Washington attorney named Stanley Woodward, leveled accusations against senior members of the Department of Justice, including DOJ Counterintelligence Chief Jay Bratt, who is now a part of Special Counsel Jack Smith’s team of prosecutors. According to news reports, Woodward claimed in a sealed letter to D.C. District Chief Judge James Boasberg that, in a meeting to discuss Nauta’s case, Bratt indicated that Woodward’s application to be a D.C. Superior Court judge could be impacted if he could not get Nauta to testify against Trump.
If true, and I see no reason why Woodward would make such a threat up — and especially no reason why Woodward would risk his career by making such a representation to a federal judge — Bratt’s alleged misconduct could result in heavy sanctions, and is a potential ground for dismissal of the entire case against Nauta and Trump. Depending on what exactly was said, Bratt could even face criminal prosecution himself.
In cases of flagrant prosecutorial misconduct, courts have the discretion to dismiss indictments altogether. If Woodward’s claims are proven, U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon would be well within her rights to consider a dismissal here. The conduct claimed is perhaps unprecedented and certainly flagrant, amounting to nothing less than an effort by a high-ranking DOJ official to deprive a defendant of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel through inappropriate and potentially unlawful acts.
At the very least, Trump and Nauta deserve answers. Courts routinely allow discovery by the defense in cases of alleged prosecutorial misconduct — including depositions and requests for documents and communications — in order to determine the scope, breadth, and effects of any misconduct that occurred. The defense team in this case should seek testimony from Bratt to get to the bottom of what he said and why.
As importantly, defense counsel should also seek to subpoena any communications between Bratt and others in DOJ and the White House relating to Woodward’s judgeship application and Bratt’s approach to Woodward more generally. My assumption is that these communications will be eye-opening, and may reveal even more misconduct on the part of the DOJ, the special counsel’s team, and their political masters.
The legal teams defending Trump and Nauta surely know all of this, and I am confident that they will pursue this and other lines of defense aggressively. But the American people also deserve to know the full details of misconduct by senior officials at the Department of Justice.
Republicans in Congress should demand answers publicly and aggressively. The House Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction to investigate matters relating to the administration of justice in the federal court system. It has the power to subpoena Bratt, the other lawyers involved in the Trump prosecution, and senior Biden administration officials to get to the bottom of this.
Make no mistake, this is a huge deal. Bratt’s conduct may even fall within the ambit of federal criminal statutes. Depending on what exactly was said, Bratt’s conduct could constitute attempted witness tampering in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1512(b)(1), attempted federal bribery in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 201(b)(3), attempted extortion by a federal official in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 872, or attempted subornation of perjury in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1622.
If the Department of Justice is truly committed to the open and transparent treatment of this case, a special counsel should be empowered to investigate Bratt’s actions and any other alleged misconduct by Jack Smith’s team.
Note: This piece has been updated.