A former longtime Senate Intelligence Committee staffer entered a not guilty plea Wednesday to charges that he repeatedly lied to FBI agents investigating leaks of classified information.
James Wolfe, 57, submitted the not guilty plea through his attorney, Preston Burton, during an arraignment before U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson in Washington.
The brief hearing offered little drama since prosecutors made no effort to have Wolfe detained pending trial, but his attorneys used the court appearance to complain that President Donald Trump’s comments about the case last Friday threatened to taint the jury pool.
Wolfe, who was the security director at the Senate intelligence panel, was indicted last week on three felony false-statement charges over statements he made denying certain interactions with journalists and denying that he disclosed confidential committee information. While Wolfe’s alleged lies came amid an FBI probe into disclosure of classified information, the indictment does not charge with disclosing national security secrets.
Burton told Robinson that Wolfe’s legal team is likely to seek a gag order to limit further public comments by Trump and others.
Burton said some Justice Department officials made statements suggesting Wolfe might be guilty of compromising classified information.
"There have been a number of statements issued by the government….That’s not what he’s charged with," the attorney said. "That issue’s been compounded by some glib remarks made by the president as he boarded Marine One last week."
Speaking to reporters on the White House’s South Lawn last Friday, Trump—who has repeatedly railed against government leaks—seemed to celebrate Wolfe’s arrest.
"It’s very interesting that they caught a leaker in a very important — it’s a very important leaker. So, it’s very interesting. I’m getting information on it now. Happened last night. It could be a terrific thing," Trump said. "I believe strongly in freedom of the press. I’m a big, big believer in freedom of the press, but I’m also a believer in classified information. Has to remain classified. And that includes Comey and his band of thieves who leak classified information all over the place."
Some of the information the indictment accuses Wolfe of disclosing seems to pertain to the investigations that have most angered Trump — criminal and congressional probes into his campaign’s alleged ties to Russia. The indictment indirectly accuses Wolfe of disclosing the identity of Carter Page, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser who was put under surveillance in 2016 as a potential conduit of information to Russia.
Prosecutor Tejpal Chawla asked Robinson to order Wolfe not to disclose any classified information and not to apply for any jobs requiring a security clearance without advance permission from the court or the prosecution.
Burton did not object.
"Mr. Wolfe well understands his obligations in that regard," the defense lawyer said. "It’s a superfluous admonishment."
Wearing a gray suit and striped red tie, Wolfe looked somber during the session. The former Army intelligence analyst stood with military bearing as the judge asked his name and whether he understood the condition of his release.
"Yes, your honor," Wolfe said firmly. Later, he promised to abide by restrictions on his travel outside the Washington, D.C., Maryland and northern Virginia area. He also agreed not to possess any firearm or be in a home with one.
Outside the courthouse, Wolfe stayed silent as another of his attorneys, Ben Klubes, refuted the charges and emphasized that Wolfe never improperly disclosed confidential information.
"He was trusted with the government’s most precious secrets while he was working as the director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee for nearly 20 years — almost 30 years. He never breached that trust," Klubes told reporters. "We’re going to vigorously defend Mr. Wolfe against this unfair, unjustified prosecution."
First Amendment advocates have raised concerns about the Justice Department’s actions in the case, particularly its seizure of phone records relating to New York Times reporter Ali Watkins without giving her advance notice. Watkins — who previously worked at McClatchy, POLITICO and BuzzFeed — has acknowledged she was in a personal relationship with Wolfe for several years, but she denied receiving confidential information from the Senate aide, according to the Times.
Klubes signaled Wednesday that the defense expects free-expression concerns to play a role in the case.
"This prosecution, I think it’s evident to all, raises serious questions about the First Amendment and freedom of the press that will be addressed in the court," the defense attorney said.
Wolfe was arrested Thursday night in Maryland and held overnight at a Montgomery County detention center before making an appearance in federal court in Baltimore Friday afternoon. He was freed after that hearing and reported Monday to an FBI office in Washington to be officially booked.
Wolfe’s case is assigned for further proceedings to U.S. District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, an appointee of President Barack Obama. Wolfe’s first appearance before her is set for June 19.
Burton and Klubes, both partners at the law firm Buckley Sandler, also announced Wednesday that Wolfe is accepting donations to a fund to support his legal defense.