Mar-a-Lago documents judge rejects Trump motion to dismiss case

The former president’s lawyers had argued that charging him with violating the Espionage Act is unconstitutional because some of the legal phrasing is too vague

Mar-a-Lago documents judge rejects Trump
Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago mansion, on February 16.Rebecca Blackwell (AP)
Miguel Jiménez

Donald Trump on Thursday attended a hearing in Fort Pierce (Florida) where a court is overseeing the case of the classified papers that the FBI found in the search of the former president’s Mar-a-Lago mansion. His lawyers had filed several motions to dismiss the 40 counts against him, but at the end of the hours-long hearing, federal judge Aileen M. Cannon issued a two-page order rejecting one of Trump’s motions.

Trump had requested the dismissal of the first 32 counts, tied to his possession of classified material related to national defense. The former president’s lawyers alleged that some phrases in the wording of the Espionage Act, which the accusation rests on — such as “unauthorized possession” of documents “relating to the national defense” and “entitled to receive” — are unconstitutionally vague when applied to the facts of the case and would therefore be a violation of due process and the rule of lenity.

Although the judge said that “the motion raises several arguments warranting serious consideration,” she refused to dismiss the charges and left the matter to be “raised as appropriate in connection with jury-instruction briefing and/or other appropriate motions.” Judge Cannon, who was appointed to the bench by Trump himself, has thus returned a decision against the former president for the first time. On previous occasions she had agreed to requests that favored Trump and were later corrected by higher courts, giving an appearance of bias that worried prosecutors.

The judge has not yet ruled on another motion filed Thursday by the defense alleging that Trump was authorized under the Presidential Records Act to retain the documents after leaving the White House, as he had designated them as personal property. The judge, however, has appeared little inclined to dismiss the case for those reasons. “It’s difficult to see how this gets you to the dismissal of an indictment,” she said to a Trump defense lawyer, according to AP, present at a hearing that was not broadcast. Cannon implied that it would be up to the jury to establish whether those documents, many of them with top secret classification marks, can be considered his private property.

A supporter of Donald Trump stands outside the courthouse in Fort Pierce, Florida on March 14.
A supporter of Donald Trump stands outside the courthouse in Fort Pierce, Florida on March 14.Marco Bello (REUTERS)

Trump has already claimed immunity in the Washington case, in which he is accused of attempting to overturn the result of the 2020 election, which he lost to Joe Biden. Although both the judge handling the case and the Court of Appeals rejected his request, Trump appealed to the Supreme Court, which has set an April 22 hearing for the oral arguments by both parties. Special counsel Jack Smith is handling both the Washington and Florida cases.

No new trial date

Prosecutors filed charges against Trump in June 2023, but the case has been moving very slowly. The judge initially set the start of the trial as May 20, but nothing indicates that this date will be observed. In another hearing held on March 1, the parties presented their arguments on when to set a new date for the trial, but the judge has not yet done so nor did she provide any clues on Thursday as to what her intentions are.

Trump’s lawyers want the trial to be delayed until after the election on November 5. In part, that would prevent Trump from sitting in the dock — and potentially being convicted — in the middle of the presidential campaign. But in addition, that would allow Trump, if elected, to give orders for the accusations to be dropped or even to pardon himself. The prosecutors would like to have the trial take place in the summer.

Trump and his lawyers insist without evidence that the accusations against the former president are a case of political persecution ordered by Joe Biden, his rival in the November presidential election. They also claim there is a double standard in the application of the law, after another prosecutor decided not to file charges against Biden for the classified papers he had in his possession from the time he was a senator and vice president, despite the enormous differences between both cases.

Trump supporters and detractors gathered outside the courthouse on Thursday. “Big crowds in Fort Pierce, Florida, for the Biden induced Witch Hunt against his political opponent, ME! Thank you, a great honor to have you there. Such a thing has never happened in our Country before - Strictly Third World. BUT, WE WILL MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”, Trump wrote on his network, Truth Social.

Meanwhile, prosecutors in the criminal case against Trump in New York have asked to delay the trial, initially scheduled for March 25, for up to a month. In that case, Trump is accused of accounting record falsehood in connection with payments to three people to hide scandals in the 2016 presidential campaign (including porn actress Stormy Daniels, to cover up an alleged extramarital affair).

Following the dismissal of three charges in the Georgia election fraud case, Trump is now facing 88 counts in four indictments.

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