But Chutkan, aware of the national spotlight on her oversight of the explosive case, repeatedly emphasized that she intended to keep politics out of the courtroom and treat Trump like any other criminal defendant. That included potential consequences if he makes statements that could be construed as harassing or threatening witnesses.
“The fact that he’s running a political campaign has to yield to the orderly administration of justice,” Chutkan said. “If that means he can’t say exactly what he wants to say about witnesses in this case, that’s how it has to be.”
“Even arguably ambiguous statements from parties or their counsel, if they can be reasonably interpreted to intimidate witnesses or to prejudice potential jurors, can threaten the process,” Chutkan added later. “The more a party makes inflammatory statements about this case which could taint the jury pool … the greater the urgency will be that we proceed to trial quickly.”
The hearing was Chutkan’s first significant foray into the case, in which Trump stands charged with three conspiracies aimed at derailing the transfer of power to Joe Biden after the 2020 election. Trump has repeatedly assailed Chutkan, an Obama appointee, on social media and called for her recusal without citing a basis. Lauro, however, has not embraced Trump’s call.
Trump has also made comments about Mike Pence in recent days that prosecutors have flagged, given Pence’s likely turn as a star witness in the trial. Chutkan said she was not ruling on any specific Trump statement but that she made her comments as a “general word of caution.”
“To the extent your client wants to make statements on the internet, that has to yield to witness security,” she noted earlier in the hearing.
Lauro repeatedly emphasized that Trump would “scrupulously abide by his conditions of release.”
The hearing also laid the groundwork for prosecutors to unload a massive trove of evidence to Trump’s legal team. Senior assistant special counsel Thomas Windom said they were prepared to share 11.6 million “pages or files” to the defense as soon as today, an eye-popping figure that Chutkan joked was sure to influence Trump’s proposed trial date.
Prosecutors, however, are seeking to bring the case to trial on Jan. 2, a rapid turnaround that they say is in the public interest. Windom emphasized that the large volume of evidence had been “extraordinarily” organized in a way that would make perusal simple for Trump’s team.
The bulk of Friday’s proceedings were focused on parameters for Trump’s ability to review evidence in the case. Chutkan began by rejecting a proposal from the special counsel that would amount to a blanket prohibition on Trump’s ability to disclose any details of the evidence he reviews.
“I don’t want this order to be overinclusive,” she said. “I don’t want to just issue a blanket protective order over information that is not sensitive.”
Chutkan repeatedly emphasized Trump’s First Amendment right to speak his mind, especially as he campaigns for president. But she said her primary goal was to ensure “the orderly administration of justice.”
“Mr. Trump, like every American, has a First Amendment right to free speech. But that right is not absolute,” she said. “The defendant’s free speech is subject to the release conditions imposed at arraignment and it must yield to the orderly administration of justice.”
Lauro repeatedly emphasized the politics hovering over the case, noting its influence on Trump’s campaign and the potential that prosecutors could accuse him of violating evidence-sharing agreements even during routine exchanges on the campaign trail with rivals that include Pence. This would advantage Biden’s reelection prospects, he said.
But Chutkan said those considerations simply could not be a factor in her rulings, saying Lauro was “conflating what your client needs to do to defend himself and what your client wants to do politically.”
“Your client’s defense is supposed to happen in this courtroom, not on the internet,” Chutkan said.
Prosecutors also raised alarms about Trump’s proposal to be permitted to review sensitive evidence in the case without a minder from his legal team.
“Defense counsel has a certain level of trust in the defendant that the government does not,” Windom said. “The defendant, when he only has the material to himself, could elect to photocopy or otherwise reproduce, take a picture of the sensitive materials. That risk is much lower when in the presence of [counsel] … He has shown a tendency to desire to hold onto material he knows he should not have.”
Chutkan sided with the defense’s request to permit Trump to review sensitive evidence without a minder from his legal team, but said Trump would be required to review such information without any electronic devices capable of reproducing it, and his team would be required to review any notes he takes to ensure it doesn’t include the personally identifying information of witnesses.
Chutkan sided with prosecutors who wanted to include “hundreds” of recordings of witness interviews and transcripts in “sensitive” materials that are barred from public disclosure. And she also rejected Trump’s team’s push to permit a significantly wider array of Trump aides to review evidence in the case, which Lauro said was necessary given prosecutors’ timeline and the extraordinary volume of material.
“The definition you have currently is too broad,” she said. “It allows just about anybody. I live in Washington. Anyone is a consultant.”