On Tuesday, special counsel Jack Smith sent a letter to U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon explaining that one of the key witnesses in the case involving Donald Trump’s retention of highly classified national security documents had changed his testimony. This happened after that witness fired an attorney provided by Trump and switched to a federal defense attorney. That letter also explained why the government filed a superseding indictment, why it wants something called a “Garcia hearing,” and announced the end of the grand jury that had been meeting in Washington, D.C.
The witness is Yuscil Taveras, the head of IT operations at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, who has been identified as “Trump Employee 4” in both the original indictment and the superseding indictment filed in the classified documents case. Originally, Taveras denied knowing anything about how security camera footage from the area around where classified documents was stored came to be deleted or lost. However, after learning that investigators suspected him of lying, Taveras walked away from the attorney that had been provided to him by Trump and provided extensive information on how Trump and his co-defendants worked to get security footage deleted.
Smith’s letter answers a lot of questions, but the biggest may be not what happened, but why. In other words: Why couldn’t Taveras tell the truth without ditching the attorney provided by Trump?
“Trump Employee 4” features heavily in the section of the superseding indictment that deals with the extensive efforts to destroy footage from the security cameras. Those cameras recorded co-defendants Walt Nauta and Carlos De Oliveira moving boxes of documents in and out of storage areas on Trump’s orders. When Trump and Nauta realized that the security footage contained evidence showing they had lied to investigators about the storage and security of those documents, that kicked off a series of attempts to quietly delete the footage.
That effort included getting Taveras to tell Nauta and De Oliveira how long security footage was held, telling Taveras that “the boss” wanted the footage deleted, and upping the pressure when Taveras explained that he didn’t know how to access the systems they wanted destroyed. When De Oliveira was finally convinced that Taveras couldn’t delete the footage or destroy the server, he was left saying, “What are we going to do?”
This section of the superseding indictment is the basis for a charge of altering or destroying information with the intent of hiding that information from investigators. It’s also the reason that De Oliveira, who was not on the original indictment, ends up as a co-defendant. It was De Oliveira who ultimately triggered a suspicious flood in which water from Mar-a-Lago’s pool was drained into the room where the security servers were located.
None of that information appeared in the original indictment, because at that time, Taveras was denying any knowledge of efforts to delete the footage or damage the server. De Oliveira also denied any contact with Taveras.
As the letter from Smith states:
When Trump Employee 4 testified before the grand jury in the District of Columbia in March 2023, he repeatedly denied or claimed not to recall any contacts or conversations about the security footage at Mar-a-Lago. In testimony before the same grand jury, De Oliveira likewise denied any contact with Trump Employee 4 regarding security footage. The Government’s evidence indicated that the testimony by Trump Employee 4 and De Oliveira was false.
Taveras lied to the grand jury. De Oliveira lied to the grand jury. And the problem for both of them was that those lies were caught by the same security cameras that had captured the footage of Nauta and De Oliveira moving boxes. The grand jury viewed footage from three different cameras “that related directly to De Oliveira’s solicitation of Trump Employee 4 to delete security footage, as well as the false denials of the same by both witnesses.”
That’s a very big oversight. But then, none of the people involved with this case, including Trump, display any signs of criminal genius.
The most important part of Smith’s letter might not be what happened, but why. Specifically, why did Taveras make false statements? There are strong reasons to believe that came on the advice of Taveras’ original attorney, Stanley Woodward, who was also representing Nauta.
Smith’s office went to Woodward after Taveras’ testimony and told him they believed his representation of both Nauta and Taveras generated a conflict of interest. Woodward denied it.
Finally, three months after his original testimony, the government informed Taveras that he was a target of their investigation. That put the whole Nauta–Woodward–Taveras triangle in an impossible position.
As Smith’s letter notes, if Woodward advised Taveras to correct his testimony, it would mean Taveras was providing evidence against Nauta. But if Taveras didn’t act fast, he would be facing charges of his own. In addition, Woodward’s fees “were being paid by Trump’s political action committee (PAC).” So the person paying for Taveras’ attorney had incentive for Taveras to lie.
That’s when the government asked for a Garcia hearing, under a sealed request. This type of hearing is held to make sure that the defendant—Taveras in this case—understands the potential risk caused by a conflict of interest.
Strangely enough, Woodward didn’t object:
In fact, he responded that he “welcomed the Court’s inquiry into his representation of” Trump Employee 4 … but asserted that he had no “information to support the Government’s claim that Trump Employee 4 has provided false testimony to the grand jury,” and that “even if Trump Employee 4 did provide conflicting information to the grand jury such that could expose him to criminal charges, he has other recourse besides reaching a plea bargain with the Government. Namely, he can go to trial with the presumption of innocence and fight the charges as against him.”
In other words, Woodward said he had no evidence that Taveras was lying, was apparently encouraging Taveras not to take a plea deal, and was instead encouraging him to “go to trial,” meaning that he would become a co-defendant with Trump, Nauta, and De Oliveira.
To say that Woodward was providing poor legal advice to his client is badly understating the case. Woodward seemed perfectly content to see Taveras face federal felony charges in order to protect Nauta and Trump.
With the help of the judge overseeing the D.C. grand jury, Smith’s office managed to provide Taveras with some advice from an independent counsel. Finally, after understanding the situation he was being put in by Woodward, Taveras told the judge that he didn’t want Woodward as his attorney, but wanted to be represented by a federal defender.
Immediately after getting this new attorney, Taveras retracted his previous testimony, went back in front of the grand jury, and provided the information that added De Oliveira to the indictment and landed Trump and Nauta an additional charge.
Earlier this month, Judge Cannon asked about the legality of a Washington, D.C., grand jury continuing to hear evidence in a case that was moving forward under indictments handed up by a grand jury in Miami. The short answer to that is yes, it’s legal, and not all that unusual. But the letter from Smith makes it clear that the reason the D.C. grand jury continued was to sort out these issues with false testimony that had originally been heard by that jury. Smith notes that the grand jury in Washington ended its business on Aug. 17.
This should remove that issue from the table, though there’s no guarantee that Cannon, who has frequently ignored legal precedent in order to help Trump, will let it drop.
For Taveras, the ending is happy—at least to the extent that he was not added to the superseding indictment. De Oliveira was not so lucky,
De Oliveira is being represented by John Irving, who was also representing other potential witnesses in the classified documents case. Last week, the government also raised concerns about a potential conflict of interest for Irving and De Oliveira. As The Hill reports, this is the second time Smith’s office has asked for a Garcia hearing related to De Oliveira.
That’s because, in addition to De Oliveira, Irving is also representing a witness that Smith says “has information demonstrating the falsity of statements De Oliveira has made to the government.” That means everyone being represented by Irving is in the same position that Taveras was when represented by Woodward—if one of Irving’s clients tells the truth, it could lead to additional charges against another of his clients.
In other indictments, Trump’s co-defendants including Jenna Ellis and Rudy Giuliani have complained that he’s refusing to share any of the $250 million raked in by his “legal defense fund” with his 18 co-defendants. But in the classified documents case, Trump’s Mar-a-Lago employees have the opposite problem.
They’re all represented by a handful of attorneys selected by Trump and paid by Trump. Those attorneys have clear conflicts of interest both among their clients and in the relationship between their clients and Trump.
Woodward could have acted months ago to secure the best deal for Taveras. He didn’t. Instead, he was willing to let Taveras go to federal court on felony charges that could have generated a decade in prison. That certainly raises questions about where Nauta and De Oliveira would be right now if they had genuinely independent counsel acting in their own interests, and not in Trump’s.