Judge appears skeptical of Trump’s co-defendants’ attempts to get some charges dismissed in classified documents case

A federal judge appeared dubious of efforts by former President Donald Trump’s two co-defendants in the classified documents case to get the charges against them thrown out and to get more information from prosecutors about the charges.

The hearing in Fort Pierce, Florida, in front of US District Judge Aileen Cannon was the first major test of the obstruction case that special counsel Jack Smith has brought against two Trump employees, his valet Walt Nauta and Mar-a-Lago property manager Carlos De Oliveira.

Even though Cannon wasn’t considering any of Trump’s requests for the case’s dismissal Friday, how she responds to his co-defendants’ arguments about the obstruction charges will likely shape how the presumptive Republican nominee in the 2024 presidential election moves forward with his defense.

Over the course of a more than two-hour hearing, Cannon grilled attorneys for Nauta and De Oliveira about their arguments that the charges against their clients lacked adequate clarity. The Trump employees are accused of conspiring to help Trump hide documents at the Florida estate after he left the White House and lying to the FBI in interviews about their alleged involvement in moving the documents. They have pleaded not guilty.

Cannon appeared skeptical of De Oliveira’s argument that an FBI agent asked unclear or irrelevant questions during a voluntary interview, asking his defense attorney John Irving why that argument shouldn’t be made to a jury at trial. De Oliveira has been charged with lying to investigators about his involvement in moving boxes at Mar-a-Lago.

De Oliveira is arguing that the obstruction-related charges against him should be thrown out because he was not aware of subpoenas issued to Trump for both the classified documents and for Mar-a-Lago surveillance footage of the documents being moved.

Arguing for the special counsel team, Jay Bratt said prosecutors are not required to show that De Oliveira knew about the subpoenas or what they were demanding. Bratt said that prosecutors only need to show he was aware of the federal investigation.

Cannon asked Bratt where in the indictment the special counsel alleges De Oliveira had knowledge of the probe. Bratt responded that they wouldn’t have charged without evidence and directed the judge to one paragraph in the indictment that used the language of the statute itself to make the allegation against the Mar-a-Lago employee.

Nauta’s arguments for throwing out the charges against him focused on the meaning of the word “corruptly” in the obstruction statute he isa ccused of violating. His attorneys claim that ongoing litigation in other cases about how the word should be interpreted made the charges unconstitutional vague.

Cannon, however, cast doubt on Nauta’s request to dismiss the charge on that basis. She noted that it is “not unusual” that crimes with an intent requirement have a “circular” definition for that requirement, and that is something that the law “tolerates.”

She also bristled at his demand for more information about the charges – with what’s known as a bill of particulars – and at one point told his attorney Stan Woodward that he seemed to be “expanding the bill of particulars as a device.”

Woodward said Nauta was entitled to more information about how boxes at Mar-a-Lago with classified documents were moved around the resort. He is accused of moving the boxes to conceal them from a Trump attorney who was reviewing them for documents with classified markings.

Bratt suggested that the government can’t know for certain where every box at Mar-a-Lago ended up, noting that the day after the attorney searched the boxes, a plane traveling to Trump’s residence in Bedminster, New Jersey, was carrying many boxes – including in the plane’s bathroom.

Trump was not present at Friday’s hearing and has several pending motions to dismiss that were not the subject of the day’s proceedings. In addition to the 32 counts of mishandling national defense documents, he faces several obstruction charges and has pleaded not guilty.

As Trump and his allies have argued he is being selectively prosecuted by the Biden administration, Smith and his supporters have argued that former president’s alleged efforts to obstruct the probe into classified documents taken from the Trump White House distinguishes this case from the other times former presidents and vice presidents have been investigated for their handling of sensitive government materials.

What did the aides know?

In court filings earlier this year, Nauta and De Oliveira asked Cannon to throw out the obstruction charges that they were facing because, they say, Smith hasn’t met his legal burden to pursue the allegations.

Nauta argued that the criminal counts he is facing are too vague. And De Oliveira argued he had “no clue” that classified documents were in the boxes he allegedly helped to move around the club and therefore couldn’t have been intentionally trying to block investigators from attaining important evidence.

De Oliveira also has asked the judge to toss the charges against him for allegedly lying to the FBI about moving boxes during a voluntary interview because, he claims, the criminal probe wasn’t hurt by his alleged lies.

Smith’s team, however, said that De Oliveira’s arguments about the strength of the government’s case should be left for a jury to decide. As for Nauta’s allegation that the charge is too vague, Smith said that the case has included “extensive allegations” of the “criminal conduct that Nauta is alleged to have undertaken.”

In his own interview with the FBI, the transcript of which was released Thursday, Nauta said that the transition out of the White House was “literally chaos” and repeatedly claimed that he believed Trump stored news clippings, hairspray, shampoo, picture frames and other miscellaneous materials in the boxes. Nauta is charged with lying in the interview.

Should Cannon reject their efforts, both co-defendants have asked the judge to order a document called a bill of particulars, in which prosecutors provide detailed descriptions of the offenses they plan to prove at trial.

Smith’s team has called those requests a “thinly veiled attempt to get the Government to disclose its trial strategy.”

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