Federal judge rejects Trump motion to dismiss charges in classified documents case News
Official White House photo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Federal judge rejects Trump motion to dismiss charges in classified documents case

The US federal judge overseeing former president Donald Trump’s criminal case regarding his allegedly wrongful detention of classified documents rejected the former president’s motion to dismiss on Thursday in a short, two-page order. Trump sought to dismiss 32 of the 40 pending criminal charges against him in the case. However, Judge Aileen Cannon denied Trump’s claim that the 32 charges were unconstitutionally vague.

Cannon ultimately found that the “resolution of the overall question presented depends too greatly on contested instructional questions about still-fluctuating definitions of statutory terms/phrases as charged.” She also indicated that Trump’s motion to dismiss raised some factual issues, which are best resolved by a jury, who is the “finder of fact” in this case.

Earlier on Thursday, Cannon heard three and a half hours-worth of arguments from federal prosecutors and Trump’s legal counsel concerning the motion to dismiss. Trump’s counsel challenged several phrases within the criminal statute he is charged under. Included among these phrases were: “unauthorized possession,” “relating to the national defense” and “entitled to receive.”

In his motion to dismiss, which was filed with the court on February 22, Trump argued that the language of the criminal statute “is inconsistent with the due process principles and separation-of-powers concerns that animate the vagueness doctrine.” His argument was an echo of prior filings in the case, in which Trump claimed that he retained and declassified the documents for his own private use under the Presidential Records Act.

The vagueness doctrine is a constitutional doctrine which requires that criminal laws explicitly state and define the type of conduct being punished. Overly vague laws are struck down based upon due process concerns, as there is a concern that vague language in criminal statutes may lead to overly broad application and arbitrary enforcement of the laws.

However, federal prosecutors, led by Special Counsel Jack Smith, have pushed back against Trump’s claim. In their response to Trump’s motion to dismiss, federal prosecutors dismissed Trump’s argument as “meritless.” The prosecutors insisted that Trump’s behavior falls squarely within the clearly defined conduct prohibited by the criminal statute. Federal prosecutors argued:

[A]s a former President, Trump could not have failed to understand the paramount importance of protecting the Nation’s national-security and military secrets, including the obligations not to take unauthorized possession of, or willfully retain, national defense information.

The 40 criminal charges in this case against Trump stem from claims that the former president wrongfully took classified government documents with him when he departed the White House on January 20, 2021. These documents included classified descriptions and analyses of US and foreign allies’ defense and weapons capabilities, nuclear information, potential US vulnerabilities and retaliation plans. The indictment clearly stated that Trump was not authorized to possess or retain these classified documents after his tenure as US president came to an end on January 20, 2021. Yet, the documents were discovered by the FBI during an August 2022 search of his Mar-a-Lago private residence in Florida.

It is worth noting that Cannon denied Trump’s motion to dismiss without prejudice. This means that Trump may again raise the same challenge to constitutional vagueness at a later date in the trial.

Cannon also heard arguments on Thursday about Trump’s motion to dismiss based on the former president’s claim of presidential immunity. However, Cannon has not yet issued a decision on the issue of Trump’s potential immunity in this case.

The US Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in April about a separate immunity claim in federal prosecutors’ 2020 election interference case against Trump. While the facts and circumstances surrounding the classified documents case are different from that of the 2020 election interference case, a ruling from the Supreme Court may impact any decision on Trump’s immunity claim.