‘Smart and strong’: Trump’s praise of Mar-a-Lago judge casts doubt on process

As the case over the former president’s handling of classified documents reaches preliminary arguments, focus now alights on Aileen Cannon, appointed by Trump himself and ratified by both parties in Congress

Donald Trump
Donald Trump, on June 13 at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, after pleading not guilty to 37 charges in the Mar-a-Lago case.Associated Press/LaPresse (APN)
Iker Seisdedos

Five weeks have elapsed since Donald Trump’s indictment in the Mar-a-Lago classified papers case and Judge Aileen Cannon is ready, after a postponement, to address the preliminary issues of the process on Tuesday. Counsel for both sides are scheduled to discuss various technical details in a courtroom in Fort Pierce, 200 kilometers (124 miles) north of the federal courthouse in Miami where the tycoon appeared on June 14 to plead not guilty to the 37 charges of which he is accused over his handling of classified documents.

Focus now alights on Judge Cannon, appointed by Trump himself and ratified by both parties in Congress. She is tasked with guiding the work of the grand jury and passing sentence if the former president is found guilty. Her impartiality was called into question last year because of her alleged sympathy for the defense’s aspirations.

Trump is not exactly helping to dispel the shadow of suspicion. In an interview last weekend, he said of her: “She’s very smart and very strong.” The phrase, which bears echoes of one of his most famous soundbites, when he said of himself in 2018, “I’m really smart, I am a stable genius,” was the Republican nominee’s response to Fox News host Maria Bartiromo’s question of whether he believed Cannon would heed his lawyers’ request to delay the trial until after the presidential election. Trump added: “We need judges who love our country so they do the right thing.”

The matter goes beyond the logical scrutiny that any judge put on the spot to prosecute a former president — and one who is aiming to return to the White House — would be subjected to. Cannon already made a controversial decision in September of last year when she approved the Trump legal team’s request to appoint a special expert to review the documents seized at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago residence in August 2022. That meant preventing FBI agents from being able to do so. The order was later overturned by an appeals court, whose decision included a stern warning to the judge.

A sketch of Trump's appearance in court in Miami.
A sketch of Trump's appearance in court in Miami.Elizabeth Williams (AP)

Judge Cannon was born in Cali, Colombia, and is of Cuban descent. She is a former circuit court judge and former Assistant U.S. Attorney in Florida. Associated with the Federalist Society, a powerful conservative and libertarian legal organization that advocates a literal reading of the U.S. Constitution, she was appointed by Trump in 2020.

Her work in the Mar-a-Lago papers case involves issuing rulings that will define the course of the process, deciding what evidence is admitted and what is not and, most significantly at this point, setting the speed with which proceedings will move. For the time being, August 14 has been set as the tentative date for the start of the trial, which will also be held in Fort Pierce, where Cannon is based. With less than a month to go, it seems clear that nothing will get underway on that Monday. Special counsel Jack Smith, appointed by the Justice Department, has asked to move the start date to December; otherwise, he has said, he will not have time to prepare the case adequately. Trump ideal scenario is a postponement until after the 2024 presidential election.

Electoral interference

Trump is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination and if he wins, he could face the almost unprecedented situation of running a campaign split between political rallies and the courts. The former president has also been indicted for the allegation that he paid hush money to adult film star Stormy Daniels to buy her silence over an alleged extramarital affair between the two. And in the coming weeks, progress is expected in an open case in Atlanta concerning the alleged pressure he exerted on Georgia officials to alter the election result of November 2020 following his defeat by Joe Biden, as well as in the investigation being carried out in Washington into the events that led to the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

According to the brief submitted by Trump’s defense to Judge Cannon, the coincidence of his legal entanglements with the campaign “makes the current schedule untenable, which would advise a continuance.”

Tuesday’s Florida court date will be spent arguing over the Classified Information Procedures Act, a 1980 law that governs how secret information is handled in a criminal proceeding. The legal text balances a defendant’s right to access evidence that prosecutors wish to use at trial and the government’s obligation to safeguard those confidential documents.

The Mar-a-Lago papers contain information on U.S. and foreign defense capabilities, details about nuclear programs and potential vulnerabilities in the event of an attack, as well as plans for responding to such an eventuality. Trump faces 37 charges in the case: 31 relating to the willful retention of national defense information; three for withholding and concealing documents from a federal investigation; two for making false statements, and one for conspiracy to obstruct justice, a charge that has also been levied against his personal aide, Walt Nauta.

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