Judge denies Trump’s request to recuse herself in election subversion case

Former president Donald Trump (Charlie Neibergall/AP)
Former president Donald Trump (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

US District Judge Tanya Chutkan has said she will not recuse herself from Donald Trump’s 2020 election interference case in Washington, rejecting the former president’s claims that her past comments raise doubts about whether she can be fair.

Judge Chutkan, who was nominated to the bench by Barack Obama and was randomly assigned to Mr Trump’s case, said in her written decision that she sees no reason to step aside.

Trump Indictment Capitol Riot
US District Judge Tanya Chutkan (Administrative Office of the US Courts via AP)

The case, scheduled for trial in March, accuses the Republican of illegally scheming to overturn his election loss to Democrat Joe Biden.

There is a high bar for recusal, and legal experts had widely considered Mr Trump’s request to be a long shot aimed at undermining the legitimacy of the case publicly that could only sour the relationship between the judge and the defence in court.

In seeking Judge Chutkan’s recusal, defence lawyers cited statements she had made in two sentencing hearings of participants in the January 6, 2021, riot at the US Capitol in which they said she had appeared to suggest that Mr Trump deserved to be prosecuted and held accountable.

They said the comments suggested a bias against him that could taint the proceedings.

But Judge Chutkan vigorously objected to the those characterisations of her comments.

“It bears noting that the court has never taken the position the defence ascribes to it: that former ‘president Trump should be prosecuted and imprisoned,’” Judge Chutkan wrote.

“And the defence does not cite any instance of the court ever uttering those words or anything similar.”

It is the second time Mr Trump has tried unsuccessfully to get a judge removed from one of the criminal cases against him.

Judge Juan Manuel Merchan, who is overseeing Mr Trump’s New York hush money criminal case, rejected similar demands that he step aside, saying he is certain of his “ability to be fair and impartial”.

Judge Chutkan has stood out as one of the toughest punishers of defendants charged in the January 6 insurrection, in which a mob of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol.

Mr Trump, the early front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, has personally assailed her on social media as he tries to make the case that the prosecution is politically motivated.

Federal special counsel Jack Smith’s team said there was no valid basis to have Judge Chutkan removed from the case. Like Judge Chutkan, they said she never said that Mr Trump was legally or morally to blame for the events of January 6 or that he deserved to be punished.

Judge Chutkan is also considering a request by Mr Smith’s team for a narrow gag order that would bar Mr Trump from making “inflammatory” and “intimidating” comments about witnesses, lawyers and other people involved in the case.

Mr Trump’s lawyers objected this week to that request.

Judge Chutkan has scheduled trial to begin March 4, 2024, over the vigorous objections of defence lawyers who said that would not give them enough time to prepare.

The case in Washington’s federal court is one of four criminal cases confronting the former president as he seeks to regain the White House.