Awkwardness in Trump’s Circle: Top Aides Could Be Trial Witnesses

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Former president Donald Trump speaks with senior campaign adviser Susie Wiles, center, as well as other staff members and reporters after speaking at a campaign event on April 27, 2023, in Manchester, N.H.

At least seven currently serving advisers to former president Donald Trump took actions that are mentioned prominently in one of his three criminal indictments or have been interviewed by prosecutors, potentially setting up uncomfortable situations in which they are working for his 2024 presidential bid while also serving as witnesses at one of his upcoming trials.

They include his top presidential campaign adviser, as well as a senior communications aide and several other campaign staffers. Walt Nauta, his closest personal aide who is frequently at his side on the campaign trail, is now a co-defendant in the case in which Trump is accused of mishandling classified documents.

Other witnesses could be drawn from a broader network of former Trump employees, political associates and longtime allies. Even the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, a longtime Trump ally who would be responsible for helping Trump win the White House should he become the party’s nominee, could be forced to take the witness stand.

Their roles add another awkward dimension to the never-before-seen prospect of a former president and possible major-party nominee standing trial while running for president. The aides’ involvement in the legal cases could further complicate their scheduling and discussions with the candidate, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, who relies on a relatively small staff.

“My best friends are lawyers,” one Trump adviser joked on Thursday, echoing a common experience among the former president’s aides that their service so often comes with legal bills.

The situation poses practical challenges for a famously undisciplined candidate running a major campaign while also preparing for multiple criminal trials, two brought by special counsel Jack Smith.

Trump has been ordered by a Florida judge to avoid discussion of the documents case with Nauta and a list of witnesses compiled by prosecutors. Prosecutors have identified at least 84 witnesses in that case alone.

At Trump’s arraignment on Thursday, where he pleaded not guilty to charges related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, a federal judge ordered him not to talk to any witnesses about the case unless through attorneys.

Asked to comment about Trump staffers who may have to serve as witnesses, campaign spokesman Steven Cheung alleged the investigation is harassing Trump aides to interfere with his campaign. “It is clear that Joe Biden knows he’s losing to President Trump and is now using his weaponized Department of Justice to attack his campaign team in order to interfere in the election,” he said.

A spokesman for Smith declined to comment.

Potential witnesses in the cases will also face a special challenge to keep Trump’s confidence in their loyalty while at the same time avoiding drawing prosecutors’ suspicions. Even though their grand jury testimony and document production was compelled by subpoenas, as would be trial testimony, any appearance of cooperating with the case against Trump could cause the former president to turn on loyal aides, spoiling their day jobs.

“Those called as witnesses are best served by letting the facts fall as they find them and ensuring they are perceived as objective,” said Brian Whisler, who represented cabinet members and senior staff of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell, many of whom testified at his 2014 federal corruption trial. Their testimony helped lead to a jury conviction for McDonnell and his wife, though the verdict was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Of Trump, Whisler added: “Based on his public statements, it seems entirely possible he would be somewhat suspicious about other people’s actions in this case.”

During Trump’s presidency, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election made for awkward interactions, according to former aides who testified to the special counsel and then returned to work down the hall from the man they had testified about.

Trump instructed aides to answer investigators’ questions, former chief of staff John Kelly said, but assumed his aides would tell investigators nothing untoward happened.

Kelly said Trump was angered to learn how much time then-White House counsel Donald McGahn spent with Mueller’s team. In his final report, released in 2019, Mueller described how Trump badgered McGahn after learning that he had revealed to Mueller’s team that Trump had at one point intended to fire the special counsel. “Actually, lawyer Don McGahn had a much better chance of being fired than Mueller. Never a big fan!” Trump tweeted not long after the report was published.

“When he found out Don McGahn and others went down there and told the truth, it was kind of a shocker to him,” Kelly said. “In the world he grew up in, people would lie and cheat for him because you were theoretically loyal to him. He didn’t like it at all.”

Similarly, during the House Jan. 6, 2021, investigation last year, Trump was upset at aides – and even some family members – for their testimony that sometimes directly contradicted his election fraud claims, growing angry as he watched some of the clips played on live TV, multiple advisers said.

In those instances, however, close advisers and friends largely offered testimony behind closed doors, with damaging bits played in small bursts months later. If called to testify at one of Trump’s trials, advisers would be required to take the witness stand and speak live in courtrooms crowded with reporters, separated by just a few feet from their boss at the defendant’s table.

Some of Trump’s current advisers have faced pointed questioning from Smith’s prosecutors, who appeared to believe they have not been forthcoming when questioned about Trump’s actions in the two federal cases, according to two people familiar with the matter. Some told Trump subsequently that they felt as though the prosecutors were hostile to them.

In Trump’s current orbit, advisers say they have tried to separate his legal and political discussions to avoid extra subpoenas to his team, but there is no surefire way to fully separate the two when his legal fate is almost certainly tied to his political fate, and vice versa. The campaign’s messaging and scheduling have become increasingly intertwined with Trump’s criminal defense, making it harder to insulate political aides from legal discussions.

The list of advisers who could serve as witnesses is long.

Nauta, the president’s omnipresent personal aide, will face trial with him in Florida. Prosecutors have alleged that Nauta lied to the government and helped Trump move boxes of documents to hide them from investigators.

Trump’s senior campaign adviser, Susie Wiles, is one of the people to whom Trump is accused of improperly showing classified documents. The Florida indictment says Trump showed a map to “a representative of his political action committee,” indicating that he should not be doing so and warning her not to get too close. People familiar with the episode have said the PAC representative was Wiles, who was running his political operation at that time. The indictment says Wiles did not have a security clearance.

The indictment also alleges that two weeks after the FBI conducted a court-ordered search at the Mar-a-Lago resort, Wiles was on a Signal chat group in which another Trump employee assured the group that Carlos de Oliveira, the property manager at Mar-a-Lago, remained loyal to Trump. De Oliveira was charged in July with lying to investigators and trying to cover up evidence. Wiles is not alleged to have sent a message herself.

Wiles’ grand jury testimony blindsided others on Trump’s team when it appeared in the indictment, aides said. She remains one of Trump’s closest advisers, overseeing his campaign operation, finances and travel. Wiles has privately told others she only testified because she was required to by law after receiving a subpoena and that she remains loyal to Trump. She declined to comment.

Jason Miller, another senior adviser on the campaign focusing on press and communications, was referenced in Tuesday’s indictment related to the 2020 election as a “Senior Campaign Advisor,” people familiar with the case said.

“You can see why we’re 0-32 on our cases,” Miller wrote in an email quoted in the indictment, referring to the campaign’s loss record in court challenges to the 2020 election and disparaging the efforts to subvert the election results. “It’s tough to own any of this when it’s all just conspiracy sh – beamed down from the mothership.”

The indictment also alleges that Miller spoke with Trump and informed him that election fraud claims, such as that votes were fraudulently cast in the name of dead people in Georgia, were not true. Those conversations could be critical to the prosecutors’ attempts to prove that Trump knew the claims were false, a required element of three of the four charges in the Jan. 6 case.

Miller has told others that he was not being critical of Trump but of the legal team around him following the 2020 election, and that he too remains loyal to Trump. Trump advisers say they feel many of the inclusions are gratuitous and are designed to draw wedges between Trump and his team.

Miller declined to comment for this story.

Lawyer Evan Corcoran remains a member of Trump’s legal team even after the Mar-a-Lago indictment extensively relied on his accounts of his interactions with Trump, referring to him as “Trump Attorney 1.” In one such conversation, Trump allegedly praised a lawyer who had supposedly deleted Hillary Clinton’s emails. In another, Trump allegedly suggested Corcoran could take documents to his hotel room and pluck out anything bad before turning the records over to the FBI.

Corcoran attended Trump’s arraignment in his case related to Jan. 6 this week, emerging from the judge’s chambers just before the former president and his other attorneys and then sitting behind the defendant’s table during the hearing. He is no longer heavily involved in Trump’s defense, multiple advisers said, largely because of his role as a witness.

Reached by phone, Corcoran hung up.

Liz Harrington and Margo Martin, both current campaign aides, were part of a meeting where Trump was recorded seeming to acknowledge that he knew he had secret documents, The Washington Post has reported.

“This is secret information,” Trump said in the recording, taken during a meeting with writers helping prepare former chief of staff Mark Meadows’ book, according to the indictment. “As president I could have declassified it. Now I can’t, you know, but this is still a secret.”

“Now we have a problem,” Harrington said, laughing.

Harrington did not respond to a request for comment. She has taken a less influential role in the past year, Trump advisers said. Martin’s attorney, Bob Driscoll, said it is simple and routine for people who work together to comply with a judge’s order not to discuss an ongoing case.

“Every lawyer tells their client, ‘Don’t talk about the case except when talking to me,'” he said. “They can interact on campaign stuff – but you don’t want your witnesses contaminating each other and getting their memories screwed up.”

Will Russell, a White House alumnus who is working for the campaign on a contract basis, testified repeatedly to the grand jury investigating Trump’s actions before Jan. 6. When Russell appeared in July, his lawyer told a judge that the questions potentially involved executive privilege, suggesting they related to conversations with Trump himself.

Stan Woodward, a lawyer for Russell, declined to comment.

The head of the main super PAC supporting Trump’s campaign, Taylor Budowich, testified to the grand jury in the documents case in June. Budowich was Trump’s spokesman during 2022 when the former president drafted a statement saying he had given “everything” back to the federal government. Budowich declined to release the statement after consulting with lawyers and advisers, fearful that it might not be accurate, people familiar with the matter have said.

Budowich is already largely walled off from direct interactions with Trump because campaign finance law prohibits super PACs from coordinating with allied campaigns. Budowich did not respond to a request for comment.

Another campaign adviser and lawyer, Boris Epshteyn, has come under scrutiny in the Jan. 6 case. Federal agents with court-authorized search warrants seized his cellphone last year, and Epshteyn appeared before the special counsel’s team in April. Epshteyn’s ongoing involvement in Trump’s legal team caused tensions with some of the other attorneys, leading at least one of them to quit in recent months.

Epshteyn declined to comment.

The indictment also describes a phone call in which Trump and “co-conspirator 2,” identified as attorney John Eastman, spoke to Ronna McDaniel, the RNC chairwoman, about a plan to convene Trump’s electors even in states where Joe Biden had been certified the winner of the 2020 election. The indictment alleges that Eastman “falsely represented to her” that the phony electors would only be submitted if the campaign’s court challenges succeeded in changing the outcome in one of the decisive states.

McDaniel speaks with Trump often, including recently to lobby him to attend the first primary debate later this month.

An RNC spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.