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Special counsel raises conflict of interest concern in Mar-a-Lago docs case

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Federal prosecutors and lawyers for Donald Trump squared off today in a federal courtroom. This is the classified documents case - the case dealing with former President Trump's alleged mishandling of them. Prosecutors asked the U.S. district judge Aileen Cannon to decide whether a lawyer representing one of Trump's co-defendants has a conflict of interest. NPR's Greg Allen was there in the courtroom. He's on the line now from Fort Pierce, Fla. Hey, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: OK, so former President Trump - we know he's currently facing four criminal indictments. Just briefly remind us the details of this particular one - this is the classified docs at Mar-a-Lago.

ALLEN: Right, exactly - the ones he held onto and he refused to return after leaving the white House. Federal investigators eventually raided Mar-a-Lago, seizing more than 100 classified and top-secret documents, if you recall. And this indictment alleges that he helped direct a conspiracy to conceal the documents from federal investigators.

KELLY: Tell us what happened in court today.

ALLEN: Well, in two separate hearings, Judge Cannon examined whether Trump's codefendants - his valet, Walt Nauta, and Mar-a-Lago property manager Carlos de Oliveira - are being fairly represented by their lawyers. Their lawyers, who are paid for by Trump, have other clients close to the former president, including at least one who worked for him during his presidency that prosecutors say is likely to be called as a witness at the trial. Judge Cannon found no problem with the lawyer who represents the property manager, de Oliveira, and she allowed de Oliveira to waive his constitutional right to an independent counsel. But the hearing broke down when prosecutors raised objections about Trump aide Walt Nauta's lawyer, Stanley Woodward.

KELLY: And why? What was the issue?

ALLEN: Well, Woodward previously represented another Trump employee, Mar-a-Lago's IT director, until that person cut ties, hired another lawyer and began cooperating with the government - basically flipping. Prosecutors say that person - the IT director - will be an important witness in the trial. He's expected to testify 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 raised the possibility that Woodward's conflict of interest may be raised with the jury, and that possibility clearly troubled Judge Cannon. She abruptly adjourned the hearing, postponing a decision until later.

KELLY: Postponing it - what is the timing? When is this trial expected to begin?

ALLEN: Well, it's still somewhat up in the air. Judge Cannon has proposed starting the trial in May. Trump's defense team has asked repeatedly for a delay - moving it until after next year's election. And of course, the reality with that is that 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 that argument around, saying that special counsel Jack Smith is the one watching politics - saying he's "engaged in a reckless effort to try to obtain a conviction of President Trump prior to the 2024 election, no matter the cost." That's a quote.

KELLY: Have we gotten any information that sheds any light on what seems like the central question in this case - why did former President Trump hold onto all these classified documents and then...

ALLEN: Right.

KELLY: ...Allegedly kept hiding them from investigators?

ALLEN: Right. And prosecutors, of course, don't need to show a motive to prove Trump and his codefendants - why they broke the law. But in a court filing this week, special counsel Jack Smith said he'll show the court why Trump held onto the documents. It's not clear what that will be, but speculation is swirling around incidents where Trump reportedly revealed classified information - one at Bedminster about an Iran attack plan and then another ABC reported last week about nuclear submarines that he reportedly gave to a club member.

KELLY: All right. OK. That is NPR's Greg Allen in Fort Pierce, Fla. Thank you, Greg.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.