Source: CNN

During a marathon day of proceedings in the Mar-a-Lago classified documents case, a morning hearing in front of Judge Aileen Cannon devolved into a shouting match amongst the attorneys, and the afternoon series of arguments prompted the judge to wonder if the legal nuances of the case may be too difficult for jurors to understand.

The heated arguments played out in a morning proceeding in Fort Pierce, Florida, that had been scheduled for Walt Nauta, one of former President Donald Trump’s co-defendants, to present arguments that special counsel Jack Smith’s team had selectively and vindictively brought charges against him.

But the hearing quickly diverted into a longstanding disagreement over an August 2022 meeting between prosecutor Jay Bratt and Nauta’s defense attorney, Stanley Woodward. Woodward has claimed in court proceedings and filings that Bratt attempted to pressure him into convincing Nauta to cooperate against Trump by threatening to affect a potential judgeship nomination. Cannon did not issue a ruling from the bench on Nauta’s motion that the case be dismissed on those grounds.

Nor did Cannon rule on a motion she heard during an afternoon session Wednesday, brought by all three of the case’s defendants, who claimed that the indictment suffers technical flaws that required the dismissal of the charges.

Cannon seemed skeptical of those arguments, while also expressing concern about a jury’s ability to understand legal nuances in the case at a future trial.

“Real people have to decide these issues,” Cannon said.

Prosecutor says defense attorney was making ‘garbage argument’

Nauta claims that he was criminally charged in the case as retaliation for declining to cooperate with the Justice Department’s investigation into the former president’s retention of classified documents at his estate.

“I had been recommended for a judgeship, that’s beyond dispute,” Woodward said Wednesday. “There was a folder about defense counsel on the table” during that meeting, he said, claiming Bratt referenced that judgeship recommendation.

“I think the implication was that I was to travel and convince Mr. Nauta to cooperate with the investigation, and if I didn’t that, there would be consequences,” Woodward said.

Prosecutor David Harbach then rose and accused Woodward of engaging in “procedural gamesmanship” by making a “garbage argument” about the meeting.

“Mr. Woodward’s story of what happened at that meeting is a fantasy,” Harbach shouted, banging his hand on the lectern in front of him. “It did not happen.”

The heated proceedings Wednesday come as the Manhattan hush money case against Trump nears its conclusion and a new phase of pretrial activity gets underway in the federal classified documents prosecution in Florida.

The hearing was the first before Cannon since she indefinitely delayed the start of the trial, which had been scheduled to begin as early as this week. It has been more than a month since the judge last held a public, in-person hearing in the case – though she has held at least one sealed proceeding since then.

Trump is charged with taking classified national defense documents from the White House after he left office and of resisting the government’s attempts to retrieve the materials. Trump, Nauta and Mar-a-Lago property manager Carlos De Oliveira have all pleaded not guilty.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Harbach slammed Woodward, saying he chose not to report the alleged incident until months later and has repeatedly changed his recollection of the conversation.

“This is a lawyer whose allegations amount basically to him being extorted,” Harbach said of Woodward, waving his arms.

Woodward sat behind the prosecutor with his hands clasped and his head down.

The judge quickly scolded Harbach, telling the attorney to “calm down.” Cannon questioned why there was no evidence gathered of what happened in the 2022 conversation, saying, “Why do those comments [about Woodward] have to be made?”

“That is not true, and I didn’t say that,” Harbach shouted back. The prosecutor said that that there was no recording of the conversation between Bratt and Woodward, but that Smith’s team has preserved any record they have of the meeting.

Woodward shot back up to the lectern, saying that “I’m here” and offering to testify under oath to what he remembered of the meeting.

Nauta’s request to dismiss the case was the first of two issues before Cannon on Wednesday. An afternoon hearing will center on co-defendants’ argument the indictment suffers technical flaws requiring its dismissal.

Trump had obtained permission from the judge to skip Wednesday’s proceedings.

Cannon says that jury may struggle to understand charges

When postponing the trial, Cannon pointed to the mountain of unresolved pretrial issues for not putting a new date on the calendar. Wednesday kicks off a stretch of hearings scheduled through late July that will get the case through some – but not all – of the pretrial issues.

During the afternoon portion of Wednesday’s arguments, the defense lawyers raised concerns about how prosecutors structured the indictment, claiming that the wording for different charges within the same indictment sometimes sounded the same.

Prosecutor Jay Bratt said the charges reference different parts of the obstruction statute used to charge Trump and two of his employees. Bratt also pointed out that jurors would be given clear instructions about the charges during a trial.

Cannon said that while “it’s going to be hard for someone to detect what’s different in these counts,” she noted “that will be a project” down the road. Cannon has not yet set a trial date in the case after indefinitely postponing it in an order earlier this month.

The Florida judge spent hours Wednesday entertaining theories from defense attorneys about what they say were problems in the investigation and prosecution of the former president, Nauta and the third co-defendant, Carlos De Oliveira. The defense theories ranged from allegations that prosecutors tried to extort Nauta’s attorney to claims prosecutors used inappropriate and “attention-grabbing” descriptions of Mar-a-Lago in the indictment.

Cannon ultimately suggested that the “potpourri of criticisms” from the three defense teams may be best suited for a jury to decide at an eventual trial.

Several legal issues have still gone unresolved, including at least five motions to dismiss the criminal case. Cannon has repeatedly suggested that various legal issues could be punted down the road and handled closer to trial.

Cannon’s slow pace in the case has attracted criticisms from outside legal experts, who have accused the Trump-appointed judge of playing into delay tactics by the GOP’s presumptive White House nominee. Unless Cannon picks up her momentum considerably, it appears unlikely the charges will go before a jury before the 2024 election. If Trump wins the White House, it is expected he will make the charges against him go away.

Newly unsealed filings give more details about the investigation

Until recent days, several major motions from Trump attacking the prosecution were not even publicly docketed. The proceedings have become mired in disputes over what should be redacted in public filings.

On Tuesday, hundreds of pages of previously sealed court filings were posted publicly as part of efforts by the former president to have the charges against him thrown out. Those filings included a previously sealed March 2023 ruling by a federal judge in Washington, DC, finding there was “sufficient” evidence that Trump committed crimes, allowing investigators to obtain information from his former lawyer that would normally be protected by attorney-client privilege.

Trump is seeking to throw out that evidence, as well as the evidence obtained in the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago in August 2022, from which investigators obtained many of the documents underlying several of the charges against Trump.

Those motions are not scheduled for argument on Wednesday, and Cannon has not yet set a hearing on them.

In her order Sunday allowing for the filings to be made public, Cannon took a shot at prosecutors – one of several swipes she’s made at Smith’s office. She expressed “concern” the special counsel’s office had sought redactions of information in the newly unsealed filings after previously giving its OK for that information to be published in full in earlier court filings.

“The Court is disappointed in these developments. The sealing and redaction rules should be applied consistently and fairly upon a sufficient factual and legal showing,” Cannon wrote. “And parties should not make requests that undermine any prior representations or positions except upon full disclosure to the Court and appropriate briefing.”

This headline and story have been updated with additional developments.

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