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Donald Trump's classified documents case gets new questions from judge and attorneys

Former U.S. President and 2024 Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump gestures during a campaign event in West Palm Beach, Fla. on October 11, 2023. He did not appear in nearby Fort Pierce for a court hearing the next day.
Giorgio Viera
AFP via Getty Images
Former U.S. President and 2024 Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump gestures during a campaign event in West Palm Beach, Fla. on October 11, 2023. He did not appear in nearby Fort Pierce for a court hearing the next day.

FORT PIERCE, Fla. — Federal prosecutors and lawyers for Donald Trump squared off Thursday in a case involving classified documents that the former president is charged with withholding and concealing.

At a hearing in Fort Pierce, Fla., prosecutors asked U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon to decide whether a lawyer representing one of Trump's co-defendants in the Mar-a-Lago documents case has a conflict of interest.

Trump is charged with withholding and concealing from federal investigators classified and top-secret documents he took with him after leaving the White House. He resisted repeated requests by federal officials to return them all. Federal investigators eventually conducted a raid at his Mar-a-Lago resort, seizing more than 100 classified and top-secret documents.

The indictment alleges that he helped direct a conspiracy to conceal the documents from federal investigators.

Trump was not in court in Fort Pierce on Thursday. But in two separate hearings, Cannon examined whether Trump's co-defendants, his valet Walt Nauta and Mar-a-Lago property manager Carlos De Oliveira, are being fairly represented by their lawyers. Their lawyers, paid for by Trump, have other clients close to the former president, including one who worked for him during his presidency who, prosecutors say, is likely to be called as a witness at the trial.

Cannon found no problem with John Irving, the lawyer who is representing De Oliveira, and allowed him to waive his constitutional right to an independent counsel.

But the hearing broke down when prosecutors raised objections about Nauta's lawyer, Stanley Woodward. Woodward previously represented Mar-a-Lago's IT director, Yuscil Taveras, until Taveras cut ties, hired another lawyer and began cooperating with the government. Taveras is expected to testify at the trial about unsuccessful efforts by De Oliveira to convince him to delete surveillance camera footage before it was seized by federal investigators.

Prosecutors say Woodward should not be allowed to question his former client at trial or try to undercut his credibility as a witness. They said Woodward's conflict of interest may be raised with the jury, a possibility that clearly troubled Cannon. She adjourned the hearing, postponing until later a decision about Woodward's representation of Nauta.

A key question remains about when this trial will begin. Cannon has proposed beginning it in May. Trump's defense team has asked repeatedly for a delay, seeking to move it until after next year's election.

If the case is pushed off until after the election, it's possible that if Trump is elected president, he could order his attorney general to have the charges dismissed. In their latest brief, Trump's lawyers try to flip the argument around, saying that special counsel Jack Smith is "engaged in a reckless effort to try to obtain a conviction of President Trump prior to the 2024 Election, no matter the cost."

As this case moves forward, Smith revealed an intriguing new piece of information in a court filing this week. He indicated that prosecutors will show the court why Trump held on to the documents. The government doesn't need to show a motive to prove that Trump and his co-defendants broke the law.

It's not clear what the special counsel believes Trump's motivation was, but speculation is focusing on incidents in which Trump reportedly revealed classified information.

One involves a meeting at his Bedminster golf club in New Jersey in which the former president showed a reporter a copy of a Defense Department plan to attack Iran. Another incident reported by ABC News took place at Mar-a-Lago, where Trump shared classified information about U.S. nuclear submarines with a club member. Details about those episodes are likely to be part of the trial.

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As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.