Emerging portrait of judge in Trump documents case: prepared, tricky and slow

A few months ago, one of the lead prosecutors handling former President Donald J. Trump’s classified documents case stood up in court and told Judge Aileen M. Cannon that he was concerned about the pace of the proceedings, cautiously expressing his desire to move the case forward. along.”

Almost instantly, Judge Cannon became defensive.

“I can assure you that behind the scenes, there is a lot of legal work going on,” she said. “So while it may not appear at first glance that anything is happening, there is a ton of work being done. »

In a way, Judge Cannon was right. Much of what judges do takes place out of sight, in the sanctity of their chambers.

But in seven public hearings spanning more than ten months, Judge Cannon left an increasingly detailed account of her decision-making abilities and judicial temperament.

The picture that has emerged so far is that of a hard-working but inexperienced and often insecure judge, whose reluctance to rule decisively on even minor issues allowed one of the cases the country’s most important criminal courts from getting bogged down in a traffic jam of unresolved questions.

She rarely issues decisions that explain her thinking in a way that might reveal her legal influences or any guiding philosophy. And that made the hearings, which took place in federal district court in Fort Pierce, Fla., all the more important in assessing his handling of the case.

Whatever his motivations, Judge Cannon has effectively jeopardized the future of a criminal prosecution that once seemed the simplest of the four criminal cases Mr. Trump faces.

She largely accomplished that goal by granting a serious hearing to almost every question — no matter how far-fetched — that Mr. Trump’s lawyers raised, playing directly into the former president’s strategy of delaying arrival of the trial.

It appears increasingly likely that the documents case will not go to a jury before Election Day and that the only trial Mr. Trump will face this year will be in Manhattan, where jurors are expected to begin deliberating on Wednesday for whether he falsified business records in connection with secret payments to a porn star.

Yet the coming weeks will place even more emphasis on how Judge Cannon will handle the case in Florida.

She could soon rule on a request from Jack Smith, the special prosecutor overseeing the two federal prosecutions against the former president, to bar Mr. Trump from making public statements that could endanger federal agents working on the documents affair. The ruling, which the judge threw out this week on procedural grounds, came in response to the former president’s baseless claim that the FBI was authorized to use deadly force against him during the search he two years ago from Mar-a-Lago, his private club and residence in Florida.

After a hearing in June, Judge Cannon will also have to make an important decision about whether to give Mr. Trump’s lawyers access to communications between Mr. Smith’s team and top security officials national. The lawyers made the request hoping to bolster their claim that the so-called deep state colluded with the Biden administration to bring the charges.

A former federal prosecutor, Judge Cannon is a graduate of Duke University and the University of Michigan Law School, where she joined the conservative Federalist Society. She was nominated to the federal bench by Mr. Trump during his final months in office and was confirmed by the Senate just days after being declared the loser of the 2020 election.

She was already under scrutiny when she obtained the classified documents case last June because of a decision she made well before the indictment was filed. That decision, which ended the investigation into Mr. Until an independent arbiter sorted through the reams of documents seized at Mar-a-Lago, Trump was so legally dubious that the court The appellate court overturned the decision in unusually scathing terms.

Since then, Judge Cannon has shown little of her human side in court, taking a professional approach to proceedings, which always begin the same way.

Invariably entering her courtroom on time, she first advises those in the gallery not to use electronic devices and reminds them of her rule to stand up while a hearing is in progress. course. She then outlines the issues and recounts the documents she received that will shed light on the conversation.

Although she has only been on the bench for four years and has limited experience handling criminal cases, it is often clear that Judge Cannon has done her homework.

In mid-March, for example, she was discussing key elements of the Espionage Act with Emil Bove, one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers and an expert on classified information. At one point, she pushed back against Mr. Bove’s assertion that a section of the law requiring “national defense information” to be present in any document charged in an indictment was so vaguely written that it was essentially unenforceable.

“There has been quite a bit of litigation, I think, on the information side of the defense,” Judge Cannon said. “It would therefore be difficult to say, based on the current state of decision-making, that this aspect, in itself, is unconstitutionally vague. »

Even if it meant he had lost his focus, Mr. Bové had to agree.

“I can’t argue with the way your honor said that,” he said.

This exchange, however, was a far cry from the one that occurred last week when Judge Cannon was debating with Jay Bratt, one of the prosecutors, a common theory of legal liability called the Pinkerton rule. The rule states that all members of a conspiracy can be held responsible for any crimes committed by their co-conspirators.

Mr. Bratt said the rule would likely apply to Mr. Trump’s relationships with his two co-defendants, Walt Nauta and Carlos De Oliveira, Mar-a-Lago employees who were accused of conspiring with the former president to obstruct the government’s repeated efforts to recover classified documents.

Judge Cannon seemed a little perplexed and asked Mr. Bratt what authority he intended to rely on to apply the Pinkerton rule. Mr. Bratt seemed almost sheepish at having to explain things to him so simply.

“So the authority East Pinkerton,” he said before launching into a brief explanation.

One of Judge Cannon’s most enduring habits is his tendency to ask the same question multiple times. It’s never quite clear whether she doesn’t understand the answers she receives or whether she’s trying to object to them.

At last week’s hearing, she did this to Stanley Woodward Jr., Nauta’s lawyer, as she considered his request to order prosecutors to provide him with internal communications that could expose him. help support his claims that the case against his client was brought vindictively.

Mr. Woodward’s communications sought to raise concerns about a meeting he attended at the Justice Department nearly two years ago where he said Mr. Bratt threatened to derail the judgeship to which he had applied if he did not obtain success from Mr. Nauta to cooperate against Mr. Atout.

When Judge Cannon asked Mr. Woodward what he really wanted from the government, his answer seemed quite simple: all the messages exchanged by prosecutors mentioning his name. The judge then asked a second time, telling Mr Woodward to give it to him “slowly”.

But even after that, she still seemed a little confused.

“Very good,” she said, this time referring to the notes she had taken. “So I understand your request. It is, I quote: ‘All documents, communications relating to Mr. Woodward.’

Something similar happened moments later when Judge Cannon turned to David Harbach, one of the prosecutors, to discuss Mr. Woodward’s request.

Mr. Harbach had just spent nearly five minutes telling the judge that Mr. Woodward’s allegations of misconduct were a “fantasy” and, by law, he had no right to delve into the government’s private messages .

But Judge Cannon appeared to miss his point, asking Mr. Harbach if he was suggesting that prosecutors were not getting any of the messages that Mr. Woodward wanted them to have. No, he told him, explaining again that Mr. Woodward had presented no evidence that would even merit revealing what he wanted.

“So I guess what you’re saying is that you’re not sure?” she asked.

No, Mr. Harbach repeated a third time, once again trying to explain that Mr. Woodward’s description of the August 2022 meeting was completely false and the normal legal threshold for transmitting private communications had not been met. simply not been achieved.

“I know you disagree with the factual account of the August meeting,” Judge Cannon said. “But would that provide a basis for the discovery request? »

Now clearly frustrated, Mr. Harbach made it as clear as he could that Mr. Woodward’s claim had no basis in either fact or law.

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” he practically shouted at the judge.

This discussion finally ended when Judge Cannon told Mr. Harbach he needed to “calm down.” It was emblematic of the dwindling reserves of patience between Judge Cannon and the prosecutors.

In October, for example, Judge Cannon lashed out at Mr. Harbach during another hearing over whether Mr. Woodward had a conflict of interest in the case. The issue revolved around the fact that Mr. Woodward representing Mr. Nauta, one of the defendants, had previously represented a man likely to testify for the government at trial.

When Mr. Harbach expressed concern that Mr. Woodward might have to cross-examine a former client — a situation that could easily lead to conflict — Justice Cannon criticized him for not mentioning that possibility in his written documents submitted before the hearing.

Citing Mr Harbach having “introduced a question at the last minute which had not been informed”, she abruptly ended the hearing and criticized the prosecution for “wasting the court’s time”.

But she acted very differently at last week’s hearing when Mr. Woodward made several arguments about her vindictive prosecution allegations that had never appeared in any of his filings. Judge Cannon barely seemed to notice that he had deviated from his script, much less reprimand him.

There’s one subject that the defense loves to talk about and that always seems to worry Judge Cannon: Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign. Although she gave her lawyers free rein to use their presentations to make political arguments, she repeatedly blocked them when they attempted to broach the political subject in court.

In early March, Mr. Bove began an argument on a highly technical legal issue by complaining that Mr. Trump should not have been in court that day, but rather campaigning.

Apparently annoyed, Judge Cannon cut him off.

“Okay, okay,” she said. “Can we talk about the real legal issues? »

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