As Donald Trump prepared to deplane for a rally in Iowa on Monday, another man in a navy suit and red tie popped out of the jet first, making his way down the stairs and ducking into the back of Trump’s black Suburban, carrying some papers and a black bag.
Nearly all of the other staffers who spent significant time with Trump in the White House have left his employ or found consulting roles in his political operation, which requires less personal interaction with the former commander in chief. Many were burned out by Trump’s volcanic temper and the tendency for their work to result in attorney’s fees and appointments with federal prosecutors, according to several who have departed, who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
But not Nauta, 40, who served as a military valet in the White House and has stayed by the former president’s side, even while emerging as a critical witness in the Justice Department investigation of Trump’s handling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida home and private club. The criminal probe is one of several focused on Trump, including an investigation into hush-money payments by the Manhattan district attorney that is nearing its end and could result in a charging decision in the next several days.
At Mar-a-Lago, as at the White House, one of Nauta’s responsibilities has been to move and carry cardboard boxes in which Trump likes to keep mementos and papers. It’s in that role that Nauta came to occupy a spot at the center of the documents investigation.
When first questioned by FBI agents last spring, The Washington Post has reported, Nauta denied any knowledge that sensitive documents were being stored at Trump’s club. But when questioned a second time, he told investigators that he had moved boxes at Trump’s direction after prosecutors sent a subpoena seeking the return of all documents marked classified and kept at Mar-a-Lago. Video footage seized from the club by FBI agents and prosecutors corroborates Nauta’s account of moving boxes after the subpoena landed, people familiar with the matter have said.
That means Trump’s loyal valet could provide evidence that illuminates a key difference between the Justice Department’s investigation of Trump and its parallel probes into how President Biden and former vice president Mike Pence have handled classified documents found in their possession: While Biden and Pence agreed to searches of their properties and appear to have handed over all restricted material as soon as it was located, Trump repeatedly resisted requests to return documents, and may have obstructed law enforcement efforts to retrieve them.
Ongoing investigations involving Donald Trump
The Justice Department, Nauta’s lawyer and the office of the special counsel leading the Mar-a-Lago documents investigation declined to comment for this article.
Trump spokesman Steven Cheung declined to answer detailed questions about Nauta’s work for the ex-president, instead issuing this statement: “Mr. Nauta’s talent, unmatched experience, and consummate professionalism has made him an invaluable part of the team. As a veteran of the U.S. military, he has served his country with distinction and upholds the values we all aspire to have. There is no other person who is more uniquely qualified to handle this job than Mr. Nauta.”
Nauta, whose full first name is Waltine, was known in the White House for his quiet on-the-job demeanor and ability to stay out of messy internal and partisan squabbling, several colleagues said. After serving a stint at Mar-a-Lago during Trump’s first months out of office, Nauta left the military and went to work for the former president as a civilian. He was paid by Trump’s political action committee and, after Trump launched his 2024 presidential candidacy, by his campaign operation as well.
In an interview in Guam, where Nauta was born and grew up, his aunt said he has conveyed to family that he was following directions when he moved the boxes at Mar-a-Lago.
“He told his mom there’s nothing to worry about. He didn’t do anything wrong. All he was instructed was to put the boxes where they were supposed to go,” said Elly Nauta, who lives two doors down from Nauta’s mother.
Understanding Trump’s rhythms
Some staffers who worked in the White House with Nauta recalled that in the freewheeling world of the Trump administration, he was one of the few staffers who appeared to perform his role — no more, no less.
“He was like, ‘Hey, I work in the White House and have a particular job here,’” said one former senior administration official.
As a military valet, Nauta lingered outside the Oval Office, waiting to see if Trump needed anything — a Diet Coke, his overcoat, a piece of paper. Staffers said Nauta did not engage in political chitchat or White House gossip and, in a world where aides were constantly edging into Oval Office meetings uninvited, seemed content to remain on the other side of the closed door.
He frequently traveled with the president to his homes at Bedminster or Mar-a-Lago, learning Trump’s rhythms and catering to his daily needs. “Everyone realized Walt is the one who Trump knows and feels comfortable with. So let’s just give Trump what he wants, which is familiarity,” the former official said.
A valet is in some ways a vestige of an earlier era, when aristocrats and other powerful men employed a personal servant to help them dress each day.
Before Richard M. Nixon, presidents generally brought their own valet with them to the White House. But since the 1970s, the job has been filled by members of the military, generally from the U.S. Navy. In her memoir, Laura Bush recalled that when he was first elected, President George W. Bush balked at the notion of staffers to help him dress, telling his father, President George H.W. Bush, “I don’t think I need a valet.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it,” his father responded, according to Laura Bush.
Sam Childers, a historian who wrote about valets for the White House Historical Association, said it is not unusual for valets to become personally close to their bosses: “Often they became part of the family and very trusted.”
“The role has changed,” Childers said. “Initially, it was pretty much laying out the clothing. Now it can be a kind of body man — they can carry the Altoid mints and the Sharpie pen.”
Nauta enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 2001 and was promoted from the White House mess not long after Trump took office.
One of six siblings, he grew up in Agat, a rural village with a population of about 4,515, located in the southwest part of Guam, an island U.S. territory in the Western Pacific. A major U.S. naval base is located just north of the village, which is known as an insular community of mostly Chamorros, the Indigenous population of Guam.
While Agat is not known to be a particularly pro-Trump village, it has voted for a Republican mayor for most of the past 50 years, voter information shows. (Guam’s residents cannot vote in presidential elections.)
Those who knew Nauta during his time at Southern High School say he kept a low profile and a small, tightknit group of friends. He was trustworthy and serious.
“He made us proud. To reach that rank is very prestigious,” said John Aguon, who taught Nauta and his brothers Chamorro culture and history in high school.
Nauta’s aunt, Elly Nauta, said he rarely visited the island after leaving to join the military, which she believed was a way for him to travel the world. She described him as family-oriented.
“He’s pretty much a good boy growing up, and as an adult pretty much the same,” she said. “He’s not a troubled kid. He’s out there to enjoy his life, not to cause problems.”
His mother, Pauline Torre, declined to comment except to say, “If he got selected — out of how many people — to serve the president, that says it all.”
‘The only one around’
Many of Nauta’s fellow former White House aides have also been questioned as part of the Justice Department investigation. While some of them similarly followed Trump to Mar-a-Lago, they no longer work for the former president.
Molly Michael, a former administrative assistant in the White House and then at Mar-a-Lago, was interviewed last year, people familiar with the situation said. Campaign finance records show payments to her by Trump’s PAC ended after September. Nick Luna and Will Russell, two other personal aides who worked for Trump in the White House and in the first months of his post-presidency, have also been contacted by federal authorities, people with knowledge of those interactions said. William “Beau” Harrison, a key staffer who helped arrange logistics for Trump’s move from the White House to Florida, received his last payment from the PAC in November and was interviewed in front of the grand jury the following month, a person familiar with his appearance said.
One former White House official said Nauta’s relocation to Florida after Trump left office appeared to be somewhat by happenstance. Focused on clinging to office and reluctant to admit his time at the White House was ending until his final day as president, Trump spent little time interviewing and building a post-presidential team.
“Walt was the one working at the end. He was the only one around,” said the former official.
Around that time, Harrison emailed an official at the General Services Administration, which manages a $2.6 million fund that outgoing presidents and vice presidents can use to pay staff and buy supplies for six months after leaving office.
“We are planning to have one of POTUS’ Valets extend his service down in Palm Beach before he has a permanent change of station to his next assignment,” the email said.
Two people familiar with the arrangement said that Nauta remained on active duty while he worked as a personal aide during Trump’s first, dark months at Mar-a-Lago, where the former president stewed about being forced from office and his failure to overturn the election.
When Nauta’s military tour at Mar-a-Lago ended, he returned briefly to Washington. But Trump’s aides quickly realized that his absence left a gap in his staffing that was difficult to fill with the ambitious young political aides who were otherwise drawn to Trump’s operation.
“There was a need for someone who wasn’t too proud to get a new tie, pick up dry cleaning, follow him around on the golf course, staff his dinners, do things that a lot of people just aren’t dying to spend their whole life doing,” said one senior Trump adviser.
At the time, Nauta was preparing to leave the Navy after a 20-year career. With the support of Trump and his wife, Melania, the former president’s aides pitched Nauta on coming to work at Mar-a-Lago full time. Nauta agreed and, in August 2021, he was put on the payroll of Trump’s Save America PAC.
Service records show he formally separated from the military at the end of September 2021.
Since then, campaign finance records show, Trump’s PAC has paid Nauta a salary of just over $10,000 a month. Nauta also gets $769 a month from public funds that Trump — as a former president — may use to pay staff, General Services Administration records show, as well as occasional consulting fees from the PAC. In December, after Trump announced he was running for president, Nauta’s salary came from the campaign operation as well. He was paid around $14,500 that month, in addition to the GSA stipend. His year-end bonus from the PAC, an additional payment, rose from $2,000 in 2021 to $3,000.
Campaign finance records showing Nauta’s pay in January and February will not be filed until April.
On his Facebook page, Nauta now uses a photo of a peaceful sunset at Mar-a-Lago as his banner image. He retains his formal military bearing around his former commander in chief and often wears a suit and tie, as he did in the White House, the senior adviser said.
When Trump dined with the rapper formerly known as Kanye West and white supremacist Nick Fuentes in November, Nauta ushered the group to their table before leaving them alone to talk.
“He is very sheepish and asks permission for everything. If he makes a mistake, he’s mortified and apologetic. He is very, very formal with the president, and very stoic. ‘Yes, sir. Understood.’ He doesn’t say a ton,” the adviser said. “He’s willing to do whatever; he’s a valet. The valet world has never left him.”
Darlene Hecita, another relative of Nauta’s, said in a text exchange that she and his family are proud of Nauta’s career: “He has made his mark in this world from a tiny island that ‘til this day not everyone is aware of.”
Asked why Nauta had continued working for Trump after he left the White House and Nauta left the Navy, Hecita wrote, “I’m guessing [because] he’s a good employer otherwise why would he stick around?”
Boxes and loyalty
One key part of Nauta’s job — and critical to the Justice Department investigation — is to serve as one of the keepers of Trump’s boxes and other possessions. A known pack rat, Trump travels often, throws papers and news clips in cardboard boxes and sometimes instructs that boxes be brought along when he travels.
“He was moving boxes all the time — golf balls, newspapers, clothes. All sorts of boxes,” said a longtime adviser.
Nauta emerged as a key witness in the documents case in the months before the FBI’s court-authorized raid of Mar-a-Lago in August.
The National Archives first reached out to ask Trump to return government documents that appeared to be missing in May 2021. After months of resistance, Trump returned 15 boxes of documents to the Archives in January 2022. Archives officials quickly discovered documents marked classified in the boxes and alerted the FBI. Federal authorities then grew concerned that Trump might have other classified documents still in his possession.
In May 2022, federal authorities sent Trump a subpoena to force the issue. The following month, two lawyers for the former president gave the Justice Department a taped-up folder containing 38 additional documents. One of the lawyers signed a certification saying a diligent search had been conducted and no other records had been found.
But investigators soon became concerned that more documents may remain — and, according to court documents, developed evidence that boxes had been moved out of a storage room in the basement of Mar-a-Lago before lawyers searched for documents in response to the subpoena. Nauta’s account could be key to illuminating those events.
During the August search, the FBI found more than 100 additional documents marked classified — some containing highly restricted, sensitive information about a foreign country’s nuclear capabilities, intelligence activity involving China and Iran’s missile systems, The Post has reported.
Nauta is now represented by Brand Woodward Law, a firm whose clients include other Trump staffers. Campaign finance reports show the firm was paid $120,000 by Trump’s PAC through November, and people familiar with the matter told The Post late last year the money went to cover legal bills for Nauta and other potential witnesses.
Stan Brand, the firm’s top lawyer, has previously said there was nothing inappropriate about the PAC’s payments on Nauta’s behalf, but other legal experts questioned whether it could affect testimony from him and other witnesses. The firm received no additional payments from the PAC in December, campaign finance reports show.
Even before this week’s Iowa swing, Nauta had accompanied Trump on the road repeatedly in recent months, flying with the former president on his private plane to political rallies in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Hecita, his relative, wrote in a text message: “I hope Trump will be appreciative of his LOYALTY.”
Lee reported from Guam. Isaac Arnsdorf in Davenport, Iowa, and Jacqueline Alemany, Alex Horton, Magda Jean-Louis and Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.