Trump lawyers argue Judge Cannon should dismiss classified documents case

FORT PIERCE, Fla. — Former President Donald Trump was in a Florida courtroom Thursday as his lawyers argued a judge should dismiss the federal criminal case involving his handling of classified documents on the grounds that the Presidential Records Act bars his prosecution. 

Trump’s legal team was arguing its position on whether all or some of the charges should be thrown out because of the 1978 law that governs the preservation of information during and following a presidency.

Special counsel Jack Smith has called on the judge overseeing the case to reject Trump’s claim that he should be shielded from prosecution because classified presidential records “can be transformed into ‘personal’” records by removing them from the White House. Trump has said that he designated the materials he took to Mar-a-Lago as personal records while still in office. A president’s personal records are excluded from the act’s requirements.

Follow live updates from the Trump classified documents hearing

U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon noted that no other former president has faced criminal charges related to the law. “There has never been a situation remotely similar to this one,” Jay Bratt of the special counsel’s office responded. 

The sides were also arguing a second motion to dismiss the case on the theory that the main statute used against Trump is unconstitutionally vague as it applies to presidents and can’t be used against him. 

Cannon, who was nominated to the bench by Trump, asked the former president’s legal team to present their arguments on both motions first, to be followed by prosecutors from Smith’s office. She’s said she expected the arguments to go throughout the day. The first motion Trump’s attorneys addressed was their “unconstitutionally vague” argument.

Trump attorney Emil Bove told the judge “the government cannot make decisions based on selective criteria and political bias,” and that the indictment should be thrown out. He pointed to other instances where presidents were found to have retained classified information and mentioned special counsel Robert Hur’s decision not to charge President Joe Biden for classified material he had in his possession dating from his time in the Senate.

In his report explaining why he declined to charge Biden, Hur said there were “clear” distinctions between the two cases, and that unlike “the evidence involving Mr. Biden, the allegations set forth in the indictment of Mr. Trump, if proven, would present serious aggravating facts.”

Trump has pleaded not guilty to the charges that he wrongfully held on to classified information after leaving the White House. One of Trump’s co-defendants, Walt Nauta, was present at the hearing, but the other, Carlos De Oliveira, was not present when the case was called. Trump’s lawyers had indicated in a court filing earlier this week that both would be there.

Judge Aileen Cannon
Judge Aileen Cannon.US District Court for the Southern District of Florida / AFP via Getty Images file

Their lawyers have sparred with the government over the timing of the trial, originally scheduled to begin May 20, but which Cannon is expected to push back. The judge granted the defendant’s request for more time but has not set a new trial date. 

Trump is facing dozens of felony charges in the indictment, including willful retention of national defense information, false statements and representations, conspiracy to obstruct justice, withholding a document or record and corruptly concealing a document. He has denied all wrongdoing. 

Trump’s co-defendants have also pleaded not guilty to the related charges against them in the indictment. The special counsel accused Nauta, who served as Trump’s valet and continued to work for him after leaving the White House, and De Oliveira, a Mar-a-Lago property manager, of seeking to erase security footage at Mar-a-Lago after the Justice Department sought to obtain it. De Oliveira is also accused of making false statements to prosecutors.

Trump has appeared in court more often in recent months, attending most of a trial in writer E. Jean Carroll’s second defamation case against him this year and several days of the monthslong civil fraud trial brought against him and his business by New York Attorney General Letitia James late last year. 

In a court filing asking for more time to respond to other outstanding motions in the documents case, Trump’s attorneys said they were preparing for the March 25 start date of his New York criminal trial.

Trump’s lawyers are also seeking to delay the trials until after the U.S. Supreme Court rules on his claims of presidential immunity because it could affect how the case proceeds. 

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