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Judge for Trump Jan. 6 charges turns aside political arguments

Former president's attorneys brought up the 2024 presidential race in arguments over an order to protect evidence in the case

An attorney for former President Donald Trump, Todd Blanche, enters the E. Barrett Prettyman courthouse Friday in Washington. Blanche and attorney John Lauro attended the first hearing held by Judge Tanya Chutkan on a protective order related to disclosure of government evidence in the case against Trump.
An attorney for former President Donald Trump, Todd Blanche, enters the E. Barrett Prettyman courthouse Friday in Washington. Blanche and attorney John Lauro attended the first hearing held by Judge Tanya Chutkan on a protective order related to disclosure of government evidence in the case against Trump. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The federal judge overseeing the criminal case tied to Donald Trump’s effort to overturn his loss in the 2020 election emphasized Friday that she will not allow the former president’s reelection campaign to influence her decisions.

During a hearing Friday over a disputed order to protect evidence in the case, Judge Tanya Chutkan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia pushed back on efforts to tie politics and the 2024 campaign to the criminal prosecution of the former president.

And in her first appearance on the bench in the case, Chutkan made clear Trump’s reelection priorities take a back seat to the integrity of the case.

“The existence of a political campaign is not going to have any bearing on my decision, any more than any other lawyer coming before me saying their client needs to do their job,” Chutkan said.

Trump attorney John Lauro argued Friday against several of the government’s proposed restrictions on evidence in the case, claiming that they were meant to handicap Trump’s challenge to President Joe Biden.

“We can’t ignore he’s in the middle of a political campaign,” Lauro said.

Chutkan pushed back on some of those arguments. “I see a desire to move this case along,” in the government’s actions, she said at one point. “I haven’t seen any evidence this case is politically motivated,” she said at another time.

Friday’s hearing was the first of what’s likely to be many procedural disputes in the historic prosecution of a former president on allegations he tried to overturn the result of a presidential election while he runs for another term in 2024.

Chutkan ruled in Trump’s favor on some issues during Friday’s hearing, including adopting protecting from public disclosure a narrower set of evidence than prosecutors had sought, and letting Trump review the evidence without an attorney present.

But his reelection campaign and a separate criminal prosecution in Florida loomed over the proceedings. Prosecutors alleged that Trump masterminded a broad-ranging conspiracy to enlist state and federal officials, his supporters and Vice President Mike Pence to overturn his loss in 2020 – and should be restricted from using evidence in the case against him to try the case in public.

Thomas Windom, attorney representing the team from special counsel John L. “Jack” Smith, argued that Trump’s team has already started a strategy to try the case in the public rather than in the courtroom.

“Here the defendant is asking for the court’s blessing to use criminal discovery for political purposes,” Windom said.

Trump has continued posting about the case since his indictment, including about people who could be witnesses in the case such as Pence, a rival for the Republican presidential nomination.

“These Fake Indictments against me didn’t come down from heaven, they came from the most corrupt President in the history of the United States, Crooked Joe Biden, in order to Rig & Steal another Election. They shouldn’t even be allowed to go forward,” Trump posted Thursday.

Lauro called the proposed order for protecting evidence a “contempt trap” for the former president while he runs his reelection campaign. Lauro repeatedly mentioned Pence, saying Trump may respond to arguments his former vice president makes on the campaign trail, which could include information that happens to be part of the case.

“Obviously since prosecutors brought this case in the middle of a campaign, Trump has the right to respond to political opponents,” Lauro said.

Chutkan said she was concerned that Trump could make statements about witnesses on the campaign trail, and that the integrity of the case had to take priority.

“What the defendant is currently doing — the fact that he’s running a political campaign has to yield to the orderly administration of justice,” Chutkan said. “If that means he can’t say exactly what he wants to say about witnesses in this case, that’s how it has to be.”

Chutkan noted Trump’s status as a former president, and the fact that he could rapidly disseminate information about witnesses, made her worried over their safety.

“The example you’re giving me is not helping, it is actually causing me some concern,” Chutkan said, referring to Lauro’s hypothetical statements about Pence.

Chutkan also said the defense also could not disclose materials produced by the House select panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, or other government entities like the Secret Service.

Lauro successfully convinced Chutkan to let Trump review evidence without an attorney present. Windom objected, saying that letting Trump review the information alone created the risk that he could copy or take sensitive information like witness interviews.

Trump “has shown a tendency to hold on to material to which he should not,” Windom said, an apparent reference to the case against Trump in Florida.

Chutkan said Trump could review sensitive information alone but could not have any electronic devices and that an attorney or an employee of the defense team had to retain custody of the sensitive documents at all times.

Chutkan also closed the hearing with a warning to Trump and his attorneys about their numerous public statements about the case. She said the more a party makes “inflammatory statements” about a case, the more urgency there was to go to trial quickly, lest their statements taint a potential jury.

“I will take whatever measures are necessary to safeguard the integrity of these proceedings,” Chutkan said.

Trump’s team and prosecutors are set to head back before Chutkan for a hearing on Aug. 28, when they are meant to argue over a trial timeline. The government filed its brief Thursday arguing for a trial starting Jan. 2.

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