Courts & Litigation Executive Branch

The Return of the Stanley Woodward Mess

Roger Parloff
Tuesday, May 7, 2024, 1:24 PM

In Trump’s classified documents case, Judge Cannon will address a defense lawyer’s claim that prosecutors tried to intimidate him nearly two years ago. 

Marine One lifts-off after returning President Donald J. Trump to Mar-a-Lago Friday, March 29, 2019 (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian,; Public Domain)

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We are reaching the stage in the federal prosecution of former President Donald Trump in Florida, for willful retention of national defense information, when defense lawyers will attempt to turn the tables on prosecutors from the Special Counsel’s Office, placing them on the defensive. We recently saw a similar tactic play out in Trump’s prosecution in Fulton County, Georgia, with fabulous success. Prosecutors were publicly humiliated, their professional judgment discredited, and their case cripplingly delayed—all over matters having nothing to do with the defendants’ guilt or innocence.

In the Fort Pierce division of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, the defense attacks will look a little different. They will not be salacious, but they will be sensational. And these accusations will have the added benefit for Trump of dovetailing perfectly with his campaign themes. Those themes posit that he is the victim of a wide range of prosecutorial misconduct and the target of a selective and vindictive stream of prosecutions masterminded by his political opponent, President Joe Biden. And that is more or less exactly what Trump and his co-defendants are arguing in court.

What’s more, the defense motions will be adjudicated by a judge who has already shown herself receptive to these themes. U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon has twice ordered the parties, on her own, to explore and report to her on possible prosecutorial misconduct. And at one recent hearing, she pressed lawyers on why Trump alone has been charged with willful retention of national defense information when other ex-presidents have also taken classified documents with them with they left the White House—seemingly unfazed by the singularity of his having allegedly defied a grand jury subpoena and conspired to commit multiple, elaborate acts of obstruction of justice.

Trump and his co-defendants have asked for four days of public hearings on their prosecutorial misconduct and vindictive and selective prosecution claims. They would like these four days of hearings to occur between July 1 and July 8—culminating just one week before the Republican National Convention. The special counsel maintains that the defense accusations are baseless and do not warrant hearings. Judge Cannon has not yet ruled.

Trump’s overarching strategy is to draw exceedingly strained comparisons between Trump’s alleged conduct and that of various other past and current federal officials—chiefly President Biden and Hillary Clinton. Lawfare has previously detailed the distinctions between Trump’s conduct and Biden’s and Clinton’s cases. 

In this article, I want to take on a single pellet in the cloud of buckshot that Trump and his co-defendants have fired in the general direction of the Special Counsel’s Office in their broad claims of prosecutorial misconduct. It’s an important accusation, though, since it is one of the very few that has any colorable basis at all.

The Context

The defense version of the facts underlying this claim first emerged in June 2023, just as the South Florida indictment was about to be unveiled. Its most succinct—if not its most sober—encapsulation was propagated on June 7 in a Truth Social post by the former president himself:


The Guardian first reported the name and narrative of the defense lawyer at the center of the story, Stanley Woodward Jr., on June 8, the day the indictment was filed and one day before it was unsealed.

Woodward represents Waltine Nauta, Trump’s valet and co-defendant, who currently stands charged, after a superseding indictment in July 2023, with eight felony counts: six for obstruction of justice, one for making false statements to the FBI, and one for participating in a “scheme to conceal” facts from a federal grand jury.

Woodward, 41, is a prominent—and busy—criminal defense lawyer in Washington, D.C. His clients have included former top Trump aides Kashyap Patel, Peter Navarro, and Dan Scavino, as well as Jan. 6 Capitol siege defendants Ryan Samsel, Federico Klein (a former Trump administration State Department official), and Oath Keeper Kelly Meggs, who is now serving a 12-year term for seditious conspiracy. Woodward, his firm, or both have represented “approximately” 12 people questioned in the special counsel’s probes, the Special Counsel’s Office estimates, including at least eight in the classified documents case. According to both special counsel filings and news reports, a number of these representations have been financed by Trump’s Save America PAC.

Woodward’s principal accusations against the Special Counsel’s Office arise from a meeting he had with four prosecutors on August 24, 2022. That was about nine-and-a-half months before Woodward first notified any judge or prosecutor that he believed something untoward took place there. 

A few weeks ago, on April 23, 2024—almost 11 months after Woodward’s version of events broke—the government’s account of the meeting was unsealed for the first time. In a nutshell, the government says Woodward’s accusation is “false” and characterizes it as “an implausible, if not ludicrous, tale.”

The competing narratives recounted in this article come largely from the newly unsealed papers originally filed in grand jury proceedings in the District of Columbia in early June 2023, when the defense first aired Woodward’s accusations.

On Aug. 7, 2023, about two months after the indictment was assigned to Judge Cannon, Cannon ordered, on her own, that the parties also file before her, under seal, complete reports on the “status of the referenced allegations.” Neither party had asked her to look into them. She was prompted to do so, she said, by “news reports of allegations of potential misconduct.” She was acting, she said, “[i]n service of the Court’s independent obligation to protect the integrity of this judicial proceeding, and to promote oversight in the Court’s oversight of this case.”

In response, the parties provided her summary reports and copies of their earlier submissions to the judge overseeing the D.C. grand jury proceedings.

More recently, on March 24, 2024, Woodward raised his accusations again in an originally nonpublic submission in Nauta’s case. Oddly, Woodward did so in a reply brief supporting Nauta’s earlier motion to dismiss for selective and vindictive prosecution, which had originally relied on unrelated contentions. The government eventually responded in an initially nonpublic surreply. (Generally, it is procedurally improper for an attorney to raise accusations in a reply brief that weren’t raised as part of the original motion. No litigant is supposed to do that, because it requires the opposing party to file a motion asking the judge to either strike the new material or permit the filing of a surreply—with the latter approach drawing out the briefing process, in part because the question of whether to allow the filing of a surreply is itself the subject of its own round of sub-briefing. The special counsel has twice complained to Judge Cannon that the defense has raised new issues in reply briefs as an abusive stalling tactic. But Cannon has ignored the government’s objections each time, refusing to disregard or strike the newly raised contentions, and declining to instruct the defense to stop proceeding in this fashion.)  

So What Happened?

Before diving into the August 2022 meeting, here’s a brief reminder of what led to it. In January 2022, after nearly a year of tense negotiations, Trump relinquished 15 boxes of documents to the National Archives and Records Administration. After NARA alerted the Justice Department to some of what it had they found there, department investigators ascertained that the boxes contained, mixed in with sundry records and news clippings, 197 documents with classification markings.

In April 2022, the Justice Department’s National Security Division convened a federal grand jury in the District of Columbia to investigate. On May 11, the grand jury issued a subpoena to Trump demanding return of any additional documents with classification markings.

On May 26, 2022, Trump valet Nauta gave a voluntary, recorded interview to two FBI agents in West Palm Beach in the presence of his then-lawyer, Derek Ross. 

On June 3, in response to the subpoena, Trump lawyer Evan Corcoran turned over a Redweld folder containing 38 additional documents with classification markings to Justice Department attorney Jay Bratt at Mar-a-Lago. Bratt is chief of the counterintelligence and export control section of the department’s National Security Division. Corcoran also furnished Bratt with a “certification,” signed by Trump lawyer and “records custodian” Christina Bobb, averring that a “diligent search” had been performed and that “[a]ny and all” responsive documents were included in the Redwell.

On June 21, Nauta testified before the D.C. grand jury. He was questioned by counterintelligence chief Bratt and another attorney in Bratt’s unit, Brett Reynolds. Nauta was then still represented by attorney Ross and a second lawyer, Cameron Steward.

Bratt’s team eventually concluded that Nauta had been untruthful at both his FBI interview or his grand jury appearance. The department lawyers informed Nauta’s lawyers, Ross and Seward, that Nauta was now a “subject” of the investigation. That meant, in the department’s nomenclature, that Nauta was now in more peril than a mere “witness”—that his conduct was under department scrutiny—but that he was not yet in as much peril as a “target.”

On Aug. 3, Nauta switched counsel, hiring Woodward. 

On Aug. 8, pursuant to a warrant, investigators searched Trump’s premises at Mar-a-Lago and found another 102 documents with classification markings.

On Aug. 15, Bratt’s team invited Woodward to meet and discuss Nauta’s situation. Woodward agreed, and the meeting took place on Aug. 24 at Main Justice—the department’s headquarters—in Washington. Present for the government were counterintelligence chief Bratt, Bratt’s deputy chief Julie Edelstein, and Reynolds. Also attending by videoconference was Michael Thakur, an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Florida. 

As the prosecutors describe it, they were unaware of anything out of the ordinary happening at that meeting, and they were likewise unaware that Woodward thought otherwise. At the meeting, Bratt informed Woodward that Nauta now faced possible criminal exposure, was considered a subject of the probe, and that the government sought his cooperation. Woodward said he would discuss the matter with Nauta and get back to them.

Though we’ll return to this meeting shortly for more detailed renditions by the participants, let’s proceed with the narrative for now. 

On Sep. 30, prosecutors Edelstein, Thakur, and team member David Raskin—an assistant U.S. attorney and senior litigation counsel from the Western District of Missouri—followed up with Woodward by phone. Sometime thereafter, Woodward asked to see Nauta’s grand jury testimony and prosecutors arranged for him to do so.

In mid-October, in a series of seemingly cordial emails, assistant U.S. attorney Thakur followed up with Woodward about Nauta. The upshot was that Nauta’s “position remain[ed] unchanged” and he would be providing no “voluntary interview” to the government.

On Nov. 18, after both Trump and Biden had announced their candidacies for the presidency, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Jack Smith as special counsel to take over both the classified documents investigation and a second inquiry relating to Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Bratt’s team continued working on the documents case, but now under the aegis of the Special Counsel’s Office. 

In March 2023, when Judge Howell’s seven-year term as chief judge came to an end, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg took her place, assuming supervision of the D.C. grand juries.

On May 8, Assistant Special Counsel Raskin emailed Woodward to ask if he had “time to grab a coffee tomorrow or something. Spot of your choosing!”

Woodward responded amiably. “David—I’d be honored,” he wrote. “I have to confess that I drink Nespresso from a machine under my desk, but welcome any recommendation you may have for venue.”

“Excellent,” Raskin parried, suggesting a place. “Probably not as good as your Nespresso machine, but I’ll try to make good company.”

On May 22, Raskin emailed Woodward again to advise him to expect a target letter for Nauta. It would be “pretty self-explanatory and consistent with our conversation,” he wrote. Nauta’s target letter, dated May 23, arrived shortly after midnight on May 24 in an email from deputy special counsel J.P. Cooney. Cooney apologized “for the late hour of the delivery.” By then—sometime between May 19 and 23—Trump had also been advised that he was a target.

On June 5, 2023—285 days after the Aug. 24, 2022 meeting—Trump’s then-attorneys, led by James Trusty, filed a motion before Chief Judge Boasberg seeking, in effect, to postpone any indictment. They alleged that the grand jury investigation of the classified documents case had been “infected with prosecutorial misconduct and bias” and sought disclosure of certain grand jury testimony “for review and possible inclusion in motions for additional relief.”

The 14-page motion sprayed at least eight accusations of wrongdoing, but by far the most eye-catching was one relating to the Aug. 24, 2022, meeting involving Woodward. According to Trusty, Bratt had told Woodward at that time “that he was aware that Mr. Woodward had been recommended to President Biden for an appointment to the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. Mr. Bratt [had] followed up with words to the effect of, ‘I wouldn't want you to do anything to mess that up.’”

In case the sensational implication was still not clear, Trump’s lawyers then spelled it out: “Mr. Bratt’s statement suggested a quid pro quo or even threat intended to cause Mr. Woodward to persuade his client to cooperate with Bratt. In other words, ‘play ball or you will have no chance of becoming a judge.’”  

Since Woodward was not a signatory to Trusty’s brief—which was filed only on behalf of Trump—on June 7 the special counsel sought, and received, Chief Judge Boasberg’s permission to show the relevant excerpts from Trusty’s brief to Woodward to get his reaction.

Woodward then provided a three-page letter, addressed to Chief Judge Boasberg, that, for the first time, informed prosecutors of what Woodward claimed had happened. The letter recounted a meeting with “approximately six prosecutors” in an “ornate conference room at Main Justice.” It continued:

Despite the purported purpose of the meeting, it began with the Department attorney Jay Bratt referencing a folder of materials in highlighting Mr. Woodward’s professional background. Specifically, Mr. Bratt remarked that he was aware of the fact that Mr. Woodward had been recommended for a Presidential nomination to the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. Mr. Bratt also advised that the case against Nauta was strong—referencing his belief that one way or the other Mr. Nauta would be giving up a lifestyle of private planes and private golf courses—and that it would behoove Mr. Nauta to cooperate in the government’s investigation.

It was inappropriate for Mr. Bratt to mention the fact that Mr. Woodward had been recommended for a presidential nomination to the Superior Court .... The only rational inference to be drawn from this reference, combined with the assertion that the government’s case as against Nauta was strong and that Mr. Woodward was not a so-called “Trump attorney,” who would do the right thing, is that somehow Mr. Woodward’s potential nomination to the Superior Court would be implicated by Mr. Nauta’s decision not to “cooperate” in the government’s investigation. Indeed, to the best of Mr. Woodward’s recollection, Mr. Bratt concluded his observations with words to the effect of, “I wouldn’t want you to do anything to mess that up.”

Woodward’s letter closes by seeking postponement of any impending indictment. It suggests that the matter be referred to the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) “for a thorough investigation and that any indictment ... not lie until such assessment is reached. ... We feel the Department has an obligation to definitively rule out the possibility of an improper taint on the Grand Jury before it pursues a prosecution in this matter.”

The Special Counsel’s Office responded the next day. “The government flatly rejects the claim that anyone threatened Woodward,” the brief asserts, “or that the government ‘insinuated’ any connection whatsoever between Woodward’s potential judicial nomination and Nauta’s potential cooperation.” (This submission was signed by Special Counsel Jack Smith and assistant special counsels James Pearce, Cecil VanDevender, and John Pellettieri. The prosecutors who participated in the meeting—Bratt, Edelstein, and Thakur—have personally signed subsequent briefs denying the allegations. Neither any of the prosecutors nor Woodward has submitted sworn declarations.) 

Not only was Woodward’s accusation false, the office asserted, but Bratt and his team didn’t even know Woodward had been nominated to the Superior Court until Woodward told them. Bratt thought Woodward was a member of the nominating commission—not a nominee. 

Bratt recalls that he had never dealt with Woodward previously but was aware of the favorable reputation of his partner, Stanley Brand. Prior to the meeting, Bratt did an internet search and found information that he believed indicated that Woodward was on the commission, which handles nominations for the appointment of the Superior Court bench in the District of Columbia.

More specifically, the brief explains, Bratt did a Google search of Woodward which turned up a link that displayed “Stanley Woodward, Jr. / jnc — Judicial Nominating Commission.” (As of this writing, my own Google search of Woodward’s name brings up the same link as the third listed result.) When Bratt clicked on the link, he said it brought up a page “with a prominent header, ‘Judicial Nominating Commission,’” and just below the header, a thumbnail bio of Woodward. (As of this writing, I get the same page when I click on the link from my Google search.) The contents of that page seem to corroborate Bratt’s account. On its face, the text makes it look like Woodward is a commissioner. There’s no indication whatsoever that Woodward is himself being recommended for a judgeship. (Nor has any other evidence been submitted suggesting that Bratt should have known of such a recommendation. The commission had submitted Woodward’s name to the White House on Nov. 23, 2020—nearly two years before Bratt’s team met with Woodward, according to a footnote in Woodward’s letter to Chief Judge Boasberg.)

The special counsel’s brief continues:

The prosecutors recall ... that Woodward corrected Bratt about the details. Bratt recalls that Woodward corrected him by explaining that Woodward was not on the nominating commission, but, instead, that he was, in fact, a potential nominee. Woodward has a different recollection of those details. He says Bratt mentioned that Woodward was a nominee, and Woodward corrected him that he was not, in fact, a nominee, but that, consistent with the Superior Court process, Woodward’s name had been submitted by the Commission to the White House for a potential nomination. Putting aside details of this confusion, the prosecutors who participated in the meeting are clear that Bratt’s comments contained no threat or suggestion of any quid pro quo and that the exchange was purely professional. They are also clear that Woodward said nothing to the contrary at the meeting or any time thereafter.

The Special Counsel sums up as follows:

Indeed, the notion that a 30-year veteran federal prosecutor would engage in such a ham-handed tactic in this sensitive investigation in a meeting alongside three other prosecutors and in the context of his first interaction with a defense attorney is nonsensical. And the belated suggestion that such conduct took place in the meeting—nine months after the fact and only days after Woodward has been informed that Nauta is a target—bolsters that conclusion.

On June 9, deputy special counsel J.P. Cooney forwarded to the Justice Department’s office of professional responsibility all the grand jury submissions relating to Woodward’s accusation. “The allegation is false,” he wrote, but “in an abundance of caution” his office and Bratt were referring the allegation to them. On Aug. 11, 2023, the Special Counsel’s Office reported to Judge Cannon that OPR had, “consistent with its policy,” placed the “self-referral” in “abeyance” pending completion of the case.


So, at long last, you have heard both accounts. What happens next is unclear. Will there be an evidentiary hearing? Will prosecutors, as in Fulton County, have to take the witness stand once more to defend themselves against charges that have nothing to do with the defendants’ guilt or innocence? Only one thing is sure: The decision about whether to hold public hearings, and all findings of fact to be made, will rest in the hands of Judge Cannon.

Roger Parloff is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. In recent years, he has regularly contributed to Yahoo Finance and Air Mail News, and has also been published in The New York Times, ProPublica, New York, and For 12 years, he was the main legal correspondent at Fortune Magazine. He is an attorney who no longer practices. He is a senior editor at Lawfare.

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