World

Judge rejects bid by Donald Trump to throw out classified documents case

Lawyers had tried to argue that the case tramples on Donald Trump’s rights.

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File) (Evan Vucci/AP)

A federal judge has rejected a bid by Donald Trump to throw out his classified documents criminal case.

US District Judge Aileen Cannon also appeared sceptical during hours of arguments of a separate effort to scuttle the prosecution ahead of trial.

Ms Cannon issued a two-page order saying that though Mr Trump and his team had raised “various arguments warranting serious consideration,” a dismissal of charges was not merited.

This image, contained in the indictment against former President Donald Trump, shows boxes of records stored in a bathroom and shower in the Lake Room at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate (Justice Department via AP)
This image, contained in the indictment against former President Donald Trump, shows boxes of records stored in a bathroom and shower in the Lake Room at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate (Justice Department via AP) (AP)

Ms Cannon, who was nominated to the bench by Mr Trump, had made clear during more than three-and-a-half hours of arguments that she was reluctant to dismiss one of the four criminal cases against the 2024 presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

She said at one point that it would be “quite an extraordinary” step to strike down an Espionage Act statute that underpins the bulk of the felony counts against Mr Trump but that his lawyers contend is unconstitutionally vague.

As Mr Trump looked on in the courtroom, his attorneys pressed Ms Cannon to throw out the case, arguing that the former president was legally entitled to keep the sensitive records he is charged with illegally retaining after he left the White House.

His lawyers say the Presidential Records Act gave him the authority to designate as personal property the records he took with him to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

Prosecutors countered that those records were clearly presidential, not personal, and included top-secret information and documents related to nuclear programs and the military capabilities of the US and foreign countries.

Ms Cannon’s ruling covered only the Espionage Act arguments.

Supporters of former President Donald Trump cheer as he arrives at court (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Supporters of former President Donald Trump cheer as he arrives at court (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

A separate motion that argued whether Trump was entitled, under the Presidential Records Act, to retain the documents remains pending, but the judge also seemed disinclined to throw out the case on those grounds too.

“It’s difficult to see how this gets you to the dismissal of an indictment,” she told one of Mr Trump’s lawyers at one point.

The hearing was the second this month in the case in Florida, which has unfolded slowly in the courts since prosecutors first brought charges last June.

Ms Cannon heard arguments on March 1 on when to schedule a trial date, but has yet to announce one and gave no indication on Thursday on when she might do so.

Prosecutors have pressed the judge to set a date for this summer, while Mr Trump’s lawyers are hoping to put it off until after the election.

After the hearing, Mr Trump took note of the “big crowds” outside the courthouse on his Truth Social platform, which included supporters with flags and signs who honked their car horns in solidarity with the former president.

He again said the prosecution is a “witch hunt” inspired by President Joe Biden.

Some of Thursday’s arguments centred on the 1978 statute known as the Presidential Records Act.

Former President Donald Trump waves to supporters as he leaves federal court (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Former President Donald Trump waves to supporters as he leaves federal court (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

The law requires presidential documents to be turned over to the National Archives and Records Administration, though former presidents may retain notes and papers created for purely personal reasons.

Mr Trump’s lawyers contend that he was free under that law to do with the records as he pleased.

Todd Blanche, a defence lawyer, said: “He had original classification authority. He had the authority to do whatever he thought was appropriate with his records.”

But prosecutor David Harbach, a member of special counsel Jack Smith’s team, told Ms Cannon that there are “all sorts of reasons” that that argument is wrong.

Prosecutors believe the files Mr Trump is charged with possessing are presidential records, not personal ones, and that the statute was never meant to permit presidents to retain classified and top-secret documents, like those kept at Mar-a-Lago.

Mr Harbach said: “The documents charged in the indictment are not personal records, period. They are not.

“They are nowhere close to it under the definition of the Presidential Records Act.”

Mr Trump’s lawyers also challenged a statute that makes it a crime to have unauthorised retention of national defence information, a charge that forms the basis of 32 of the 40 felony counts against Mr Trump in the case.

Bicycle-mounted police were on patrol surrounding the courthouse where Donald Trump was attending a hearing (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Bicycle-mounted police were on patrol surrounding the courthouse where Donald Trump was attending a hearing (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

Defence lawyer Emil Bove said ambiguity in the statute permits what he called “selective” enforcement by the Justice Department, leading to Mr Trump being charged but enabling others to avoid prosecution.

Mr Bove suggested a recent report by special counsel Robert Hur, which criticised President Joe Biden’s handling of classified information and did not recommend charges, proved his point about the lack of clarity.

When a law is unclear, Mr Bove told Ms Cannon, “The court’s obligation is to strike the statute and say ‘Congress, get it right’.”

Jay Bratt, another prosecutor with Mr Smith’s team, disputed that there was anything unclear about the law, and Ms Cannon pointedly noted that striking down a statute would be “quite an extraordinary step”.

Mr Trump is accused of intentionally holding onto some of the nation’s most sensitive documents at Mar-a-Lago — only returning a fraction of them upon demand by the National Archives.

Prosecutors say he urged his lawyer to hide records and to lie to the FBI by saying he no longer was in possession of them and enlisted staff to delete surveillance footage that would show boxes of documents being moved around the property.

Donald Trump has been combining campaigning for the presidential election with court hearings (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)
Donald Trump has been combining campaigning for the presidential election with court hearings (AP Photo/Mike Stewart) (Mike Stewart/AP)

Ms Cannon has suggested in the past that she sees Trump’s status as a former president as distinguishing him from others who have held onto classified records.

On Thursday, she wrestled with the unprecedented nature of the case and noted that no former president had ever faced criminal jeopardy for mishandling classified information.

But, Mr Bratt responded, “There was never a situation remotely similar to this one”.

Mr Trump is separately charged in a federal case in Washington with conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

The former president has argued in both federal cases that presidential immunity protects him from prosecution, though Ms Cannon has not agreed to hear arguments on that claim in the documents case.

The US Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on Mr Trump’s immunity claim in the election interference case next month.