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How a key witness lifted the lid on Trump’s handling of classified documents

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

(CNN) — A new glimpse inside Donald Trump’s inner circle shows how the ex-president’s men and women often confront a fateful dilemma under huge personal pressure.

Do they owe their loyalty to a rule-breaking boss or the rule of law and a conventional view of the national interest?

The latest long-time Trump hand to learn this lesson is Brian Butler, who is referenced as “Trump employee 5” in the criminal case over classified documents that the former commander in chief hoarded at his Florida resort after leaving office. Butler came forward in an exclusive interview with CNN Monday, identifying himself as a key witness in the case and saying he unknowingly helped load boxes of secret intelligence documents onto Trump’s plane in West Palm Beach ahead of his summer sojourn in New Jersey – at around the same time the FBI was due in Florida to reclaim them.

Butler said a colleague told him they were all “dirty” regarding the boxes, which he later realized were included in a federal indictment of Trump, who’s pleaded not guilty to multiple charges and is now the presumptive GOP nominee.

“I had no clue,” Butler told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins. “I never thought it was anything like what we see now,” he said of the boxes.

Butler’s comments are important because they foretell how he might testify in the federal classified documents trial that could be hugely damaging to Trump but that is increasingly unlikely to happen before Americans vote in the fall. His lessons about life in the shadow of the ex-president form the basis of a string of fresh warnings about Trump’s behavior and his fitness to serve a second term. And his revelations appear to demonstrate a shocking and cavalier attitude to classified information by a man who could, in 11 months, be back atop the US government with control over its intelligence agencies and access to the nation’s most critical secrets.

Butler, who has not been charged, paints a picture of an inner world where his fealty to the boss was taken for granted by other long-time colleagues, as he slid unknowingly into a potential legal gray area. Like countless other ex-Trump associates, he came under intense pressure to stick with the boss, including with the offer of legal representation.

The former Mar-a-Lago valet and club manager also explained how the fallout from his split from Trump had resulted in the severing of his close friendship with indicted Mar-a-Lago property manager Carlos De Oliveira, mirroring the experience of other former insiders cast into social and political wilderness.

Butler’s depiction of life inside the Trump bubble was familiar to long-time Trump insider Stephanie Grisham, who served various roles in the 2016 campaign and the White House, culminating in a spell as press secretary. Like Butler, and countless other former aides, Grisham arrived at a moment when she could no longer make the personal contortions needed to stay loyal to Trump.

“The mob mentality really rang true to me,” Grisham told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Monday. “He called him (Trump) the boss, which is what we all called him. There were the loyalty tests – again that happened to all of us.”

Butler is far from the only Trump associate to find himself in a legal maze. A long list of former acolytes – dating back to the 2016 campaign – have gone on trial or been prosecuted. One top aide who didn’t break with Trump, former White House trade official Peter Navarro, is due to report to prison by next week after defying a congressional subpoena and being convicted by a jury.

Hundreds of Trump supporters have also been convicted and served jail time for their role in the mob attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Others are awaiting trial for their alleged attempts to help him steal the 2020 election, including former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who is facing financial ruin as he struggles to pay his legal fees. But so far, the ex-president has escaped legal accountability for events surrounding the 2020 election while his attorneys try to exhaust every opportunity for delay to ensure he doesn’t go on trial until after the 2024 election.

Butler says he’s speaking out now because he wants voters to know the truth about the presumptive Republican nominee before November’s election. “For him (Trump) to get up there all the time and say the things he says about this being a witch hunt and everything. … He just can’t take responsibility for anything,” Butler told CNN’s Collins.

As Trump gets closer to the White House – he is likely to pass the delegate threshold needed to claim the GOP nomination on Tuesday night – concern about the implications of his possible Oval Office return are growing.

CNN’s Jim Sciutto, for instance, cites several former senior officials in a new book as warning that the former commander in chief is ill suited to defending US interests. People like former chief of staff John Kelly and former national security adviser John Bolton provide eye-raising details about Trump’s admiration for some of the world’s most murderous dictators and even about the former president’s admiration for aspects of the Nazi rule of Adolf Hitler.

Why ‘Trump Employee 5’ broke his silence

It is too early to say whether Butler’s testimony would be decisive in the federal trial in the classified documents case. The full story of his time at Mar-a-Lago is also not publicly known. But the ex-president’s attorneys would surely seek to demolish his credibility under cross examination.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to multiple charges in the case, including over the retention of national defense information and accusations that he concealed documents in violation of witness-tampering laws. Walt Nauta, a Trump personal aide, and De Oliveira, who have not broken with the ex-president, have also denied wrongdoing.

A lawyer for Trump declined to comment to CNN, as did a lawyer for Nauta. An attorney for De Oliveira, John Irving, said in a statement, “We look forward to hearing more about Mr. Butler’s version of events when he is under oath and subject to penalty of perjury in the courtroom where that belongs, and we decline to try this case in the media.”

Legal experts said that given Butler’s longtime employment with Trump and access to him – he first went to Mar-a-Lago in 2002 – and his apparent lack of a grievance against his former employer, he could be a powerful witness for special counsel Jack Smith.

“He could be the ultimate insider,” said former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, who is now a CNN law enforcement analyst. Ryan Goodman, a professor at New York University law school, told Burnett that Butler could be a powerful witness for Smith because he was a “direct witness and a participant in a large part of the activities that are indicted.”

When former Trump aides turn

Butler is tracing a path taken by many Trump world heretics. They include the ex-president’s former attorney and fixer Michael Cohen, who went to jail for campaign finance and tax crimes after turning on his onetime client. Cohen will be a key witness when Trump becomes the first ex-president to go on trial over a hush money case in New York later this month. The fact that Cohen was already convicted of lying to Congress is certain to be used by the ex-president’s lawyers as they seek to puncture his testimony.

Butler’s epiphany mirrors the personal journey of Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows who witnessed attempts to overturn the will of voters in 2020 and decided she had to warn the American people about the ex-president’s behavior. Hutchinson gave shocking testimony to the House select committee investigating the January 6 assault on the Capitol. But she’s also experienced the consequences of turning on Trump, which unleashed vilification of her character and motives from the former president’s circle and conservative media. A new attempt to discredit Cassidy accelerates this week with House Republicans stepping up their examination of the January 6 committee.

Hutchinson opened up about her dilemma over whether or not to expose what she had learned about Trump world in an interview with CBS last year. “I felt torn a lot of the time because I knew what I knew and I wanted to come forward with what I knew,” Hutchinson said. “But at the same time, I didn’t want to feel like I was betraying them.”

The constant legal, political and personal drama around Trump, which helped contribute to his defeat in 2020, is becoming more visible now that he’s closer to a White House return. But his surge toward the GOP nomination already proves that revelations like those from Butler will do nothing to damage his hold on his party. And while his alleged careless treatment of classified documents he stored in a bathroom at his home is extraordinary for an ex-commander in chief and may have damaged national security, there is little sign the case has penetrated public consciousness in a way that could really weaken Trump in November. At least not yet.

That’s partly because Republicans have been trying to draw equivalences between this case and that of classified material found at an office formerly used by President Joe Biden and at his home. But another special counsel, Robert Hur, a Trump-appointed former district attorney, made clear in his final report that the cases bear no comparison. Hur, who will testify on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, wrote that Biden’s lawyers found the documents and returned them, while Trump allegedly tried to obstruct an investigation – alleged behavior that Butler’s testimony could lay bare.

Butler’s insight into life behind closed doors in Trump’s orbit also explains why the ex-president’s lawyers are so keen to delay any trial until after voters make their choice in November. And it provides a taste of what may be to come if the most disruptive and recalcitrant president ever wins another term.

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