On the morning of July 6, Donald Trump’s valet Walt Nauta strode through a scrum of photographers in front of a Miami federal courthouse to plead not guilty to helping the former president hide classified documents at Mar-a-Lago and obstructing justice. If Nauta was overwhelmed by the gravity of the moment––the most serious charge against him carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years––he masked his emotions behind wraparound sunglasses affixed to his shaved head.
Prosecutors surely hoped Nauta was sweating it. Since last year, special counsel Jack Smith’s team has seemingly tried to get the 40-year-old former Navy cook to flip on Trump and cooperate with the classified documents probe. But Nauta has refused, a stance prosecutors may have to get used to as the trial looms. According to six current and former Trump advisers and associates I spoke with since Nauta’s arraignment, the loyal valet is unlikely to turn on his boss. “He’s fiercely protective of the [former] president,” a senior Trump campaign adviser says.
Trump last month pleaded not guilty to 37 counts in the classified documents case, the first time in history a former president has faced federal charges. That arraignment followed Trump, in April, pleading not guilty to 34 criminal counts in Manhattan related to hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels, all as federal and state investigations continue into his attempt to overturn the 2020 election. Despite the prospect of multiple criminal trials playing out in an election year, Trump has vowed to continue his quest for the Republican nomination—with Nauta right by his side.
The tragic irony is that Nauta’s loyalty to Trump seems born from the service ethos he learned in the military. Even though Nauta retired from the Navy in 2021 and now works for a civilian former president, he allegedly followed Trump’s orders to move boxes as if Trump were still the commander in chief. “Walt still serves the president as if he never took off the uniform,” longtime Trump adviser Michael Caputo says.
Unlike the volcanic egos that surround Trump, Nauta is exceedingly friendly, humble, and reserved, staffers say. “He doesn’t draw any attention away from Trump,” a former West Wing staffer says. Nauta was born in Guam and grew up one of six siblings near a Naval base on the island. In 2001 Nauta enlisted in the Navy and eventually earned the rank of senior chief culinary specialist. In 2012, he was assigned to the White House as a member of the presidential food service during Barack Obama’s second term (the Navy oversees food operations at the White House).
Most Naval postings are brief, but Nauta excelled and stayed on after Trump was elected. Nauta was promoted to valet, which required him to be stationed outside the Oval Office ready to bring Trump a steady feed of hamburgers and Diet Cokes. West Wing staffers say Trump praised Nauta’s diligence. “You’d be in the Oval with a guest and Trump would say to Walt, ‘Can we get some chips in here?’ Then Trump would turn to the guest and say, ‘What do you want? This guy can get you anything,’” another former West Wing staffer recalls. Trump especially liked that Nauta had “a military bearing and training,” the former West Wing staffer says. (Despite avoiding the Vietnam War, Trump likes to surround himself with military people. He frequently referred to military officers and generals as “my generals” and “my military.”) And so, after Trump left office in disgrace after the January 6 insurrection, Nauta joined him as a personal aide at Mar-a-Lago.
According to a senior Trump campaign adviser, the Biden White House told Trump to send Nauta back to Washington after just two months. (The White House did not immediately respond for comment). In the spring of 2021, young Trump aides handled Nauta’s valet duties, but the senior campaign adviser says they grumbled when asked to do personal tasks for Trump at all hours, and Trump wanted Nauta back. By August 2021, Nauta was on the payroll of Trump’s super PAC, and he retired from the Navy by September 2021.
Since then, their bond has only grown tighter. Staffers say Nauta expresses no ambitions to transition from valet into a policy role. “Walt anticipates everything,” the senior campaign adviser says. “If the president’s tie ever gets even a drop of water, Walt exchanges it for a new one. I think Walt reads his mind. I don’t think King Charles has anyone this good.”
In the coming months, Nauta’s loyalty will face the ultimate test. “When the entire weight of the Department of Justice is on your throat, it feels like you can’t breathe, but Nauta has backbone,” Caputo tells me.
Another former Trump loyalist warns that Nauta’s loyalty may be misplaced. “A notable thing about history is that it tends to repeat itself,” former Trump fixer Michael Cohen tells me. “All Walt needs to do is look at what has happened to me and others in Trump’s orbit to realize the smart move is to worry about yourself. Rest assured, the cliché that everything Trump touches dies is accurate.”