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Motion after motion puts Trump Florida case in slow motion as 3-day hearing begins

A large white building with palm trees outside.
Rebecca Blackwell
/
AP
FILE - A police officer stands beside an entrance to the Alto Lee Adams Sr. U.S. Courthouse, Aug. 15, 2023, in Fort Pierce, Fla. The federal judge presiding over the classified documents case against former President Donald Trump is hearing arguments Friday, June 21, 2024, on a long-shot defense effort to get the indictment thrown out based on the claim that the prosecutor who brought the charges was illegally appointed.

FORT PIERCE, Fla. (AP) — The federal judge presiding over the classified documents case against former President Donald Trump is hearing arguments Friday on a long-shot defense effort to get the indictment thrown out based on the claim that the prosecutor who brought the charges was illegally appointed.

The arguments over the legality of special counsel Jack Smith's appointment kick off a three-day hearing that is set to continue next week and bring further delays to a criminal case that had been scheduled for trial last month but has been snarled by a pileup of unresolved legal disputes. The motion questioning Smith's selection and funding by the Justice Department is one of multiple challenges to the indictment the defense has raised, so far unsuccessfully, in the year since the charges were brought.

Even as Smith's team looks to press forward on a prosecution seen by many legal experts as the most straightforward and clear-cut of the four prosecutions against Trump, Friday's arguments before U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon won't involve discussion of the allegations against the former president. They'll center instead on decades-old regulations governing the appointment of Justice Department special counsels like Smith, reflecting the judge's continued willingness to entertain defense arguments that prosecutors say are meritless, contributing to the indefinite cancelation of a trial date.

Cannon, a Trump appointee, had exasperated prosecutors even before the June 2023 indictment by granting a Trump request to have an independent arbiter review the classified documents taken from Mar-a-Lago — an order that was overturned by a unanimous federal appeals panel.

Since then, she has been intensely scrutinized over her handling of the case, including for taking months to issue rulings and for scheduling hearings on legally specious claims — all of which have combined to make a trial before the November presidential election a virtual impossibility. She was rebuked in March by prosecutors after she asked both sides to formulate jury instructions and to respond to a premise of the case that Smith's team called "fundamentally flawed."

The New York Times, citing two anonymous sources, reported Thursday that two judges — including the chief federal judge in the southern district of Florida — urged Cannon to step aside from the case after she was assigned to it.

The hearing is unfolding just weeks after Trump was convicted in a separate state case in New York of falsifying business records to cover up a hush money payment to a porn actor who has said she had sex with him. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is set to issue a landmark opinion on whether Trump is immune from prosecution for acts he took in office or he can be be prosecuted by Smith's team on charges that he schemed to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

At issue in Friday's hearing is a Trump team claim that Smith was illegally appointed in November 2022 by Attorney General Merrick Garland because he was not first approved by Congress and because the special counsel office that he was assigned to lead was not also created by Congress.

Smith's team has said Garland was fully empowered as the head of the Justice Department to make the appointment and to delegate prosecutorial decisions to him. Prosecutors also note that courts have upheld prior appointments of special counsels, including Robert Mueller by Trump's Justice Department.

On the agenda for next week are arguments over a limited gag order that prosecutors have requested to bar Trump from comments they fear could endanger the safety of FBI agents and other law enforcement officials involved in the case.

The restrictions were sought after Trump falsely claimed the agents who searched his Mar-a-Lago estate for classified documents in August 2022 were prepared to kill him even though he was citing boilerplate language from standard FBI policy about use of force during the execution of search warrants. The FBI had intentionally selected a day for the search when it knew Trump and his family would be out of town.

Trump's lawyers have said any speech restrictions would infringe on his free speech rights. Cannon initially rejected the request on technical grounds, saying prosecutors had not sufficiently conferred with defense lawyers before seeking the gag restrictions. But prosecutors subsequently renewed the request.

Another issue set to be discussed next week is a defense request to exclude from the case evidence seized by the FBI during the Mar-a-Lago search, and to dismiss the indictment because of evidence it includes that came from former members of Trump's defense team.

Though attorney-client privilege protects defense lawyers from being forced to testify about their confidential conversations with clients, prosecutors can get around that shield if they can establish that the lawyer's legal services are being used to further a crime.

That's what happened last year in the classified documents investigation, with prosecutors in their indictment repeatedly citing details of conversations Trump had with M. Evan Corcoran, an attorney who represented the former president during the investigation and who was forced by a judge to appear before the grand jury investigating Trump .

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