A former Senate aide charged with lying to the FBI has privately reached out to senators to seek their help in his criminal trial, raising the prospect that they may be subpoenaed to testify, Senate sources told CNN.
Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have received letters from the legal team of the panel’s former head of security, James Wolfe, asking if they would assist in his defense, either as a character witness or to help rebut the allegations made by federal authorities.
Whether any will cooperate is an open question. But if they refuse, it could prompt a legal fight over whether provisions under the “speech or debate” clause of the Constitution – designed to protect lawmakers over Executive Branch interference – could allow them to avoid taking the stand in what could be a messy criminal trial.
The issue did not come up at a Thursday status hearing, where US District Court Judge Ketanji B. Jackson instead denied a motion by Wolfe’s attorneys that would have stopped President Donald Trump from making any more public comments about the case. Trump characterized Wolfe as a “very important leaker” immediately after the former aide’s June arrest on charges that he lied to FBI agents about his interactions with the press.
Whether senators and reporters will be forced to take the stand is a matter bound to come up at future appearances. The judge set the next status hearing for August 23. After the trial date is set, senators and potentially reporters who were in contact with Wolfe could be hit with subpoenas.
Sen. James Lankford, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, confirmed to CNN that he had received a letter from Wolfe’s legal team asking for his assistance. But the Oklahoma Republican said he was at a loss with what assistance he could give.
Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr declined to comment when asked whether Wolfe reached out to him.
“You’ll have to ask Jim,” Burr, a North Carolina Republican, told CNN.
A Wolfe attorney declined to comment.
Wolfe, 57, was arrested in June on charges of lying to FBI agents in December 2017 when he was interviewed about his alleged contacts with several reporters. The indictment accuses Wolfe of making false statements to the FBI about providing reporters with non-public information involving issues before the panel, which delves into classified intelligence.
Wolfe has pleaded not guilty.
The case has received national attention because the Justice Department seized the records of New York Times reporter Ali Watkins without first notifying her, alarming First Amendment advocates. Watkins, who had covered the committee, was involved in a three-year romantic relationship with Wolfe.
Wolfe’s attorneys weigh appeal over Trump gag order ruling
On Thursday, the judge denied Wolfe’s legal team’s claim that his right to a fair trial was hindered by Trump’s comments, saying high-profile cases are talked about all the time in the public domain. She went on to say that they failed to show that Trump would keep making these claims.
Wolfe’s legal team pushed back.
“The President made comments that clearly relate to Mr. Wolfe and indicate that he is in fact guilty of leaking information and that the fact that information suggested by his comments are classified,” Wolfe’s attorney Benjamin Klubes said in open court. “It clearly prejudices Mr. Wolf’s right to a fair trial by an impartial jury,”
“He is not simply a third-party commentator on a television show opining on a criminal case but rather the head of the executive branch, which is bringing this prosecution.”
In a statement, Klubes added: “We will be studying the judge’s ruling closely as we consider our options, including Mr. Wolfe’s appellate rights.”
This story has been updated with additional developments.