Federal judge overseeing Trump election interference case refuses to hold prosecutor in contempt News
White House, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Federal judge overseeing Trump election interference case refuses to hold prosecutor in contempt

The federal judge overseeing former US President Donald Trump’s 2020 election interference case in Washington DC refused on Thursday to hold the lead prosecutor in contempt. Trump had sought to hold Special Counsel Jack Smith in contempt for continuing to file documents with the trial court after Judge Tanya Chutkan issued a stay on any further proceedings pending a decision from the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit on Trump’s claim of “absolute” immunity from the criminal charges.

In a January 4 filing, Trump asked the trial court to hold Smith and his team in contempt “for violating the Court’s order ‘stay[ing] any further proceedings that would move this case towards trial or impose additional burdens of litigation'” on Trump. Chutkan previously issued the stay on December 13 because of Trump’s appeal to the DC Circuit. Since that stay, however, Smith and his team have filed two documents relating to motions in limine and discovery.

In his January 4 filing, Trump asked that the court penalize the federal prosecutors for continuing to file documents in what he described as a violation of the court’s stay. Trump claimed, “[T]he prosecutors seek to weaponize the Stay to spread political propaganda, knowing that President Trump would not fully respond because the Court relieved him of the burdens of litigation during the stay.”

Chutkan, however, disagreed with Trump’s assertions in her Thursday order. Chutkan explained how “staying the deadline for a filing is not the same thing as affirmatively prohibiting it.” So, while the trial court proceedings are paused via the stay, the government is not specifically barred from filing any further documents while awaiting a decision from the DC Circuit.

Chutkan noted that while the government did file two additional documents with the court, Trump has not responded to those filings, other than noting his objections. Chutkan also noted that “[t]he court has likewise not taken any action or imposed any new requirements on the parties.” Chutkan went on to say, “The court cannot conclude that merely receiving discovery or an exhibit list constitutes a meaningful burden.” In other words, Smith’s team has not taken any substantive actions to advance the litigation toward the March 4 trial date.

As a result, Chutkan denied Trump’s request to hold Smith in contempt.

That said, Chutkan recognized that the original order granting the stay was somewhat ambiguous. In line with this finding, Chutkan clarified that both parties are now “forbidden from filing any further substantive pretrial motions without first seeking leave from the court.” Until the court receives a decision from the DC Circuit, Trump and federal prosecutors now must first obtain permission from Chutkan before filing any further documents.

The DC Circuit is expected to hand down its decision on Trump’s immunity claim any day now. If Trump loses his appeal before the DC Circuit, however, he may still seek further appellate review of the issue. That may mean that the trial court proceedings are delayed even further, minimizing the chance that the trial proceeds on schedule with its March 4 timeline.