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Judge Cannon Rejects 1 of 2 Claims by Trump's Attorneys to Throw Out the Fort Pierce Classified Documents Case; Decision on the Other Claim Still Pending

Fort Pierce - Friday March 15, 2024: Federal District Court Judge Aileen Cannon Thursday rejected one of the arguments made by Donald Trump's lawyers who sought to convince her to throw out the 40 felony charges the former president is facing in the Fort Pierce classified documents case.

Thursday evening Judge Cannon issued a two-page order in which she wrote that the Trump team had raised “various arguments warranting serious consideration,” however she concluded that a dismissal of the charges against him was not merited.

During more than three-and-a-half hours of arguments Thursday Judge Cannon made it clear that she was reluctant to dismiss the case. She said at one point that a dismissal of the indictment would be “difficult to see” and that it would be “quite an extraordinary” step to strike down an Espionage Act statute that underpins the bulk of the felony counts against Trump.

In her subsequent ruling rejecting the defense request, she cited “still-fluctuating definitions of statutory terms/phrases” along with “disputed factual issues" that could be decided by a jury.

Trump attended Thursday's arguments, listening intently with his hands sometimes clasped in front of him on the defense table as his attorneys pressed Judge Cannon to throw out the case.

Judge Cannon has not yet issued a ruling on a separate defense arguments that also seeks dismissal of the charges. That argument contends that the ex-president was permitted under the Presidential Records Act to retain the documents he took with him when he left the White House.

However, Judge Cannon also seemed disinclined to throw out the case on those grounds. In response to that argument, Judge Cannon told one of Trump's lawyers that - “It’s difficult to see how this gets you to the dismissal of an indictment." But her decision on that matter is still pending.

The Fort Pierce documents case involves boxes of federal government owned presidential records, many of which are secret and highly classified.

Trump took those documents to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida and his Bedminster Golf Club in New Jersey. For more than a year he refused requests by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to return all the documents. A grand Jury subpoena was issued demanding their return, and eventually he was indicted on 40 felony counts accusing the former president of illegally taking and retaining the documents, falsely claiming that all the documents had been returned, and engaging in a conspiracy to hide documents in an effort to prevent investigators from retrieving them. Trump has pleaded not guilty.

After the hearing, Trump on his Truth Social platform took note of the “big crowds” outside the courthouse, which included supporters with flags and signs who honked their car horns in solidarity with the ex-president. He again said the prosecution is a “witch hunt” inspired by President Joe Biden.

The documents case is just one of four felony criminal cases facing the ex-president who is on his way to be nominated for a third time as the Republican Party's choice to lead the nation as President.

Judge Cannon Has Still Not Set a Date to Start the Trial

Judge Cannon's ruling is a modest win for special counsel Jack Smith's team, which in addition to the classified documents case is pursuing a separate prosecution of Trump on charges that he plotted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Thursday's hearing was the second this month in the Fort Pierce documents case, which has unfolded slowly in the courts since prosecutors first brought charges last June.

Judge Cannon heard arguments on March 1 on when to schedule a new trial date — it was initially set for May 20 — but has yet to announce one and gave no indication Thursday on when she might do so. Prosecutors have pressed the judge to set a date for this summer. Trump’s lawyers are hoping to put it off until after the election.

The Arguments Pro and Con for Dismissal

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

His lawyers say the act entitled him to designate as personal property the records he took with him to Mar-a-Lago in Florida and that he was free to do with the documents as he pleased.

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

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 U.S. and foreign countries. They say the presidential records statute was never meant to permit presidents to retain classified and top secret documents.

“The documents charged in the indictment are not personal records, period. They are not,” Harbach said. “They are nowhere close to it under the definition of the Presidential Records Act.”

Trump’s lawyers separately challenged as overly vague a statute that makes it a crime to have unauthorized retention of national defense information, a charge that forms the basis of 32 of the 40 felony counts against Trump in the case.

Defense lawyer Emil Bove said ambiguity in the statute permits what he called “selective” enforcement by the Justice Department, leading to Trump being charged but enabling others to avoid prosecution. Bove suggested a recent report by the special counsel Robert Hur that criticized President Joe Biden’s handling of classified information did not recommend charges proved his point about the lack of clarity.

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

Cannon pointedly noted that striking down a statute would be “quite an extraordinary step,” adding that no former president had ever faced criminal jeopardy for mishandling classified information. However Jay Bratt, another prosecutor with Smith’s team, responded, “there was never a situation remotely similar to this one." And Bratt disputed the claim that there was anything unclear about the law.

Cannon Previously Overruled

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.

After the Trump team sued the Justice Department in 2022 to get his records back, Cannon appointed a special counsel to conduct an independent review of the documents taken during the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search. That appointment was later overturned by a federal appeals court.

Trump is separately charged in another federal case in Washington with conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Trump has argued in both federal cases that presidential immunity protects him from prosecution, though Cannon has not agreed to hear arguments on that claim in the documents case.

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