Judge Denies One of Trump’s Efforts to Derail Documents Case

Judge Denies One of Trump’s Efforts to Derail Documents Case

The federal judge overseeing former President Donald J. Trump’s prosecution on charges of mishandling classified documents on Thursday rejected one of his motions seeking to have the case dismissed, the first time she has denied a legal attack on the indictment.

In a two-page order, the judge, Aileen M. Cannon, rebuffed arguments by Mr. Trump’s lawyers that the central statute in the indictment, the Espionage Act, was impermissibly vague and should be struck down entirely.

The decision by Judge Cannon followed a nearly daylong hearing in Federal District Court in Fort Pierce, Fla., where she entertained arguments from Mr. Trump’s legal team and from prosecutors in the office of the special counsel Jack Smith about the Espionage Act. The government says the former president violated that law 32 times by removing a trove of highly sensitive classified material from the White House after he left office.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers had claimed that certain phrases in the text of the law — for instance, its requirement that prosecutors prove defendants took “unauthorized possession” of documents “relating to the national defense” — were so ambiguous and open to debate as to be unenforceable.

During the hearing, Judge Cannon, who was appointed by Mr. Trump near the end of his term, seemed skeptical about the assault on the statute. As Mr. Trump and Mr. Smith sat in front of her on opposite sides of the courtroom, she said it would be an “extraordinary” move for a judge to unilaterally strike down the Espionage Act, the chief federal law governing the handling of classified material.

In her order, Judge Cannon acknowledged that Mr. Trump’s lawyers had raised “various arguments warranting serious consideration,” but she added that their concerns about the Espionage Act were better made in “connection with jury-instruction briefing.”

Her suggestion that the case could be moving toward dealing with jury issues was the clearest indication she has given so far that it may eventually be headed to trial, though she has yet to set a date.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers raised another attack on the case during the hearing in Fort Pierce, asserting that under a law known as the Presidential Records Act, Mr. Trump designated the documents he took with him from the White House as his own personal property and so he could not be charged with possessing them without authorization.

Judge Cannon expressed deep reservations about that claim, too, noting that while Mr. Trump was free to argue at trial that the documents he was charged with holding on to actually belonged to him, it was “difficult to see” how the argument warranted tossing out the entire case before it went to a jury.

The two motions discussed in court on Thursday were only some of the barrage of filings that Mr. Trump’s lawyers have submitted to Judge Cannon in a kind of kitchen-sink approach that has assailed the indictment from every conceivable angle — not to mention from what a lot of lawyers might consider some inconceivable ones as well.

Aside from his attacks on the Espionage Act and his Presidential Records Act claims, Mr. Trump has questioned the legality of the appointment of Mr. Smith and has argued — without any evidence — that President Biden personally directed the prosecution to be brought against him as a way to sink his 2024 campaign.

Mr. Trump has also asserted that he is shielded from the charges altogether by presidential immunity, even though he was no longer president when almost all of the actions mentioned in the indictment took place.

Taken as a whole, the motions are an aggressive and often far-fetched attempt to evade accountability for holding on to what prosecutors have described as some of the nation’s most guarded secrets and to question the authority of the government to have brought the case in the first place.

Mr. Trump’s arguments have painted the prosecution as illegal and unfair from the outset, reflecting, as one of Mr. Smith’s deputies recently wrote, “his view that, as a former president, the nation’s laws and principles of accountability that govern every other citizen do not apply to him.”

While Judge Cannon spent much of the day peppering the defense and the prosecution with detailed questions about key phrases in the Espionage Act and about precisely how Mr. Trump went about designating the records he took as personal property, there was one important subject that she did not broach: the timing of the trial.

Two weeks ago, Judge Cannon held a hearing ostensibly to pick a new trial date, but she has yet to issue a decision.

Throughout the hearing on Thursday, Judge Cannon kept nudging the discussions in court toward issues related to another — and more politically explosive — motion that Mr. Trump’s lawyers have filed. In that motion, the lawyers accused Mr. Smith of selectively and vindictively bringing charges against Mr. Trump when other top officials, like Mr. Biden, were not prosecuted for being in possession of classified documents after leaving office.

Judge Cannon has not yet scheduled a hearing on the selective prosecution motion, a notoriously difficult one for defendants to win.

But Mr. Smith’s team has vehemently opposed the claims, saying in recent court papers that Mr. Trump’s case was “starkly different” from Mr. Biden’s. The prosecutors argued, among other things, that while Mr. Biden cooperated fully with investigators, Mr. Trump repeatedly obstructed their attempts to retrieve documents and to conduct an inquiry into his efforts to hide them.

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