Trump judge casts doubt on ex-president’s attempts to throw out classified documents case

Judge Aileen Cannon appeared sceptical of two arguments from Trump attorneys to dismiss Mar-a-Lago case

Alex Woodward
Thursday 14 March 2024 19:14 GMT
Brian Butler recalls unknowingly loading boxes of classified documents onto Trump's plane

A federal judge appointed to the bench by Donald Trump appeared sceptical of his attorney’s arguments to throw out criminal charges stemming from his retention of classified documents stashed at his Mar-a-Lago property.

The former president joined his attorneys inside a federal courthouse in Florida for a hearing on two motions to dismiss the case, arguing that charges against him under the Espionage Age are unconstitutionally “vague” and that the Presidential Records Act protects him from prosecution.

US District Judge Aileen Cannon repeatedly appeared to cast doubt on the heart of Mr Trump’s arguments but did not immediately reach a decision after the hearing in Fort Pierce on Thursday.

The former president faces a 40-count indictment alleging violations of the Espionage Act, obstruction, and the illegal removal of federal records. His legal team’s motions to dismiss the case add to a growing list of attempts to evade the 91 criminal charges against him in four separate criminal cases in four jurisdictions.

But there are several other motions to dismiss the case from Mr Trump’s attorneys, and the judge has yet to set a schedule to hear them.

Mr Trump’s attorneys previously argued in court filings that Mr Trump had “virtually unreviewable” authority to designate presidential records as personal ones and that the National Archives and US Department of Justice were unauthorised to retrieve records that Mr Trump was given “unreviewable discretion” to label “personal” before he left the White House.

On Thursday, Judge Cannon suggested those arguments are “premature”.

The former president “never” deemed those records as his personal ones, prosecutor Jay Bratt told the judge.

He pointed to a transcript from a recorded conversation in which Mr Trump discussed classified documents at his club in Bedminster, New Jersey.

“Not only is it premature, it never happened,” Mr Bratt said. “He doesn’t say there, ‘I can show you this because it’s personal.’ ... In fact, he’s saying the opposite.”

The judge also appeared sceptical of defence attorney Todd Blanche’s argument that “presidents since George Washington have taken materials out of the White House” at “their own discretion.”

“It’s difficult to see how this gets you to the dismissal of an indictment,” Judge Cannon said.

Donald Trump arrives at a federal courthouse in Florida on 14 March for a hearing on his attempts to dismiss criminal charges in a classified documents case. (REUTERS)

Prosecutors with the office of special counsel Jack Smith previously argued in court filings that the documents recovered from Mar-a-Lago are “indisputably presidential,” and that the Presidential Records Act (PRA) would still apply to any classified information discovered at his residence. The former president is not charged with violating the PRA.

“Nothing in the PRA leaves it to a president to make unilateral, unreviewable, and perpetually binding decisions to remove presidential records from the White House in a manner that thwarts the operation of the PRA – a statute designed to ensure that presidential records are the property of the United States and that they are preserved for the people,” prosecutors wrote.

Mr Trump’s lawyers argued in a separate motion that the application of the Espionage Act – which prohibits the willful retention of national defence information – is “unconstitutionally vague” and that the term “national defence information” is too broad.

But “Trump fails to explain how his prior status as an original classifying authority has any bearing on whether he could retain classified documents post-presidency, whether or not he had a role in classifying,” prosecutors wrote in court filings.

“You understand, of course, that finding a statute unconstitutionally vague is an extraordinary step,” Judge Cannon told defence attorney Emil Bove.

“I understand that it is significant, but it’s warranted here,” he replied.

Mr Trump is charged with the illegal possession of classified documents at his Florida estate after leaving the White House in January 2021 and for impeding efforts by the US government to reclaim them.

According to the indictment, Mr Trump allegedly attempted to hide boxes of classified documents following a grand jury subpoena that ordered their return.

Mr Trump’s aide Walt Nauta and Mar-a-Lago property manager Carlos de Oliveira were also indicted and have also moved to dismiss the charges against them.

All men have pleaded not guilty.

In an interview with right-wing network Newsmax that aired on 13 March, Mr Trump claimed he took the documents “very legally” and “wasn’t hiding them.”

He said Mr Smith is “out to murder” him and amplified a baseless conspiracy theory that the criminal charges against him are politically motivated stunts under President Joe Biden’s direction.

Mr Smith has proposed a trial should start on 8 July, while Mr Trump’s attorneys have suggested that a trial should start on 12 August, if at all.

Mr De Oliveira would also be tried on 12 August, under the defendants’ proposed schedule. Mr Nauta would be tried on 9 September.

In separate motions, Mr Trump’s legal team has also argued that the case should be dismissed on “presidential immunity” grounds, a defence he has used – and which judges have rejected – in a separate federal case surrounding his attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Prosecutors fired back at that “outlandish” claim “that he is immune from crimes which ... entirely post-date his term of office,” they wrote. “Such a claim is not only unprecedented; it is entirely without basis in law.”

FBI agents seized more than 300 classified government documents from Mr Trump’s Florida compound during a warrant-authorised search of the property in August 2022, after protracted attempts from federal authorities and the National Authorities to get them back.

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