By JILL COLVIN
NEW YORK (AP) — A longtime Mar-a-Lago staffer who spent years fetching luxury cars for wealthy club members is the latest person to be ensnared in former President Donald Trump’s ballooning legal troubles.
Carlos De Oliveira appeared in court Monday to face charges connected to what prosecutors allege was a scheme directed by the former president and current GOP front-runner to try to erase security footage after it was subpoenaed by a grand jury. De Oliveira is also charged with lying to investigators, according to a new indictment unveiled last week.
De Oliveira is now the second little-known Trump employee charged in connection to his alleged hoarding of classified documents at his Palm Beach, Florida, club. His case highlights the collateral damage of Trump’s mounting legal woes, as he leaves a trail of co-conspirators and allies accused of lying or committing other crimes on his behalf. Some of those finding themselves under legal scrutiny depend on Trump for their livelihood — and now to pay their mounting legal bills.
Trump has adamantly denied any wrongdoing and accused President Joe Biden’s Justice Department of targeting him to damage his campaign.
“They’re trying to intimidate people so that people go out and make up lies about me. Because I did nothing wrong,” he told conservative radio host John Fredericks last week. “But these are two wonderful employees. They’ve been with me for a long time, and they’re great people. And they want to destroy their lives.”
The White House has repeatedly denied any suggestion that Biden has sought to influence investigations related to Trump.
De Oliveira’s appearance Monday marked not only the public’s first glimpse of Trump’s co-defendant but also an introduction for many who frequent the club. Unlike Walt Nauta, the Trump aide who was charged last month and who is a constant presence by Trump’s side, even current and former Trump staffers and allies said after the indictment was unsealed they were unfamiliar with De Oliveira and didn’t recognize his name. Several asked whether a reporter might have a photograph to help jog their memories.
Mar-a-Lago is staffed by more than 150 workers, from full-time staff to seasonal employees, and many were among those called to appear before the grand jury, according to people familiar with the appearances, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the case. They are just some of the dozens of staff, aides, public officials and attorneys who have been caught up in overlapping investigations into the documents as well as Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
De Oliveira, according to the indictment and public records, has worked at Mar-a-Lago for more than 20 years, beginning as a valet who earned just $12,000 in 2010. He was promoted to the club’s property manager in January 2022.
One club member who insisted on anonymity to talk about staff described De Oliveira as a friendly face who ran the valet parking operation. The club member said it was hard to imagine Trump having any kind of lengthy conversations with someone in his position, as the indictment alleges. Others, however, noted Trump has a tendency to talk to everyone, including staff, and pays very close attention to his properties, pointing out issues like chipped paint and directing maintenance workers to quickly attend to them.
Trump also has a longtime pattern of elevating low-level staffers, building intense loyalty in the process. They pointed to people like Dan Scavino, a former golf caddy who became one of Trump’s most trusted aides, serving as a White House deputy chief of staff for communications and one of the few people entrusted to issue tweets under his name.
While those who have been elevated by Trump are among his most loyal defenders, others who have turned against the former president described a pattern of young staffers and low-level employees becoming enthralled with Trump and the trappings of power — first at the White House, with its rides aboard Air Force One, and now at Mar-a-Lago, where dues-paying members burst into applause every time he enters a room. Trump, they say, has a knack for making people feel as though they are special and, from some, earns blind loyalty in return.
Stephanie Grisham, a onetime press secretary and aide to the former first lady, who is now a vocal Trump critic, said she was initially enamored by it all.
“I used to be in awe of that very thing,” she said. “He makes you feel important.”
De Oliveira and his attorney, John Irving, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, and nobody answered the door at the home he rents in a working-class suburban community close to the highway between Jupiter and West Palm Beach. In 2012, records show, he filed for bankruptcy.
“The Justice Department has unfortunately decided to bring these charges against Mr. De Oliveira,” Irving said after the court appearance Monday. “They don’t stop to put their money where their mouth is. I am looking forward to seeing what discovery is.”
De Oliveira joins a long line of former Trump associates, employees and supporters who have faced potential jail time or served time behind bars. They include Nauta, the Navy valet who fetched Trump’s Diet Cokes at the White House before joining him as a personal aide, and was charged last month alongside Trump for his role in the alleged scheme. Both he and Trump have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Allen Weisselberg, a Trump Organization executive, served three months in jail after pleading guilty to receiving $1.7 million in unreported job perks. And Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime lawyer and fixer, spent more than 13 months behind bars over payouts he helped arrange during the 2016 presidential race to keep women from going public about alleged sexual encounters with Trump. Trump has since been charged in connection to the payments.
Others have recently been implicated. In Michigan last month, 16 Republicans who acted as fake electors to help Trump overturn the results of the 2020 were charged with felonies. And more than 1,000 people so far have been charged with federal crimes in connection with storming the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, driven by Trump’s lies of a stolen election.
The document unveiled last week alleges that, the day after the Trump organization was informed of a draft grand jury subpoena asking for security camera footage from Mar-a-Lago, Trump called De Oliveira and they spoke for approximately 24 minutes. A day later, Nauta — who was scheduled to travel with Trump to Illinois — changed his arrangements and instead made plans to travel to Palm Beach.
At the club, Nauta met with De Oliveira and the two “went to the security guard booth where surveillance video is displayed on monitors, walked with a flashlight through the tunnel where the Storage Room was located, and observed and pointed out surveillance cameras.”
Two days later, De Oliveira allegedly asked “Trump Employee 4” — a man identified as information technology worker Yuscil Taveras — how long security footage was saved on the club’s server and said “the boss” wanted the server deleted. When the employee responded that he would not know how to do that and didn’t have the right to, De Oliveira allegedly “insisted to TRUMP Employee 4 that ‘the boss’ wanted the server deleted and asked, what are we going to do?'”
It remains unclear whether the men succeeded in preventing investigators from accessing any footage. Prosecutors, in their interviews, had asked about potential gaps or missing footage, but the indictments make ample reference to movement caught on tape, and Trump has insisted nothing was deleted.
Another notable scene unfolded two weeks after the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search. The indictment alleges that Nauta called another Trump employee and said words to the effect of, “someone just wants to make sure Carlos is good.” The employee allegedly responded that De Oliveira was loyal and would not do anything to affect his relationship with the former president — and later confirmed that in a Signal chat. Later that day, Trump allegedly called De Oliveira and told the property manager that he would get him an attorney.
Trump’s political operation has paid tens of millions of dollars on legal fees for associates, including De Oliveira, and recently created a new legal defense fund to help cover costs.
“In order to combat these heinous actions by Joe Biden’s cronies and to protect these innocent people from financial ruin and prevent their lives from being completely destroyed, a new legal defense fund will help pay for their legal fees to ensure they have representation against unlawful harassment,” said Trump spokesman Steven Cheung.
Grisham said the help made it harder to turn on Trump.
“If he’s looking out into the world right now, he’s not seeing that anyone who’s turned on Trump has been real successful. And he’s getting his lawyers paid for … so I think he traps you in that regard, too. … You’re trapped financially, you’re trapped emotionally and you dig yourself into a hole you cannot get out of, thinking: ‘What is the upside for me to tell the truth?’… At the end of the day you have to feed yourself and your family.”
This story has been corrected to show the Capitol attack was in 2021, not 2001.
___ Associated Press writers Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami and Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.