WASHINGTON — The judge overseeing the federal election interference case against former President Donald Trump has rejected his request to hold special counsel Jack Smith and his office in contempt.
Earlier this month, attorneys for Trump asked U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan to hold Smith in contempt for filing motions while the case is stayed pending Trump’s appeal on presidential immunity grounds.
Chutkan, however, said in her opinion and order Thursday that she agrees with Trump that Smith’s filings place a "cognizable" burden on him, and that although it was "not a major burden" for Trump's team to have to review Smith's filings, and that she would now forbid the special counsel from making substantive pretrial motions without permission going forward.
Chutkan has ordered that both parties be required to seek her permission before filing additional pre-trial motions while the stay order remains in effect.
“This measure is an addition to the Stay Order, aimed to further advance its purposes, and does not reflect a determination that the Government has violated any of its clear and unambiguous terms or acted in bad faith,” she wrote.
Chutkan wrote that continuing to produce discovery was a separate matter, and that she "cannot conclude that merely receiving discovery or an exhibit list constitutes a meaningful burden," because receiving discovery "requires no review or response" from Trump's team.
Smith's office had explicitly notified both the court and Trump's team that it planned to continue to meet the deadlines previously set by the court. In a memo opposing Trump's motion to hold the special counsel in contempt, Smith's office noted that the office "did what it said it would do."
Chutkan noted in her order that Smith's office was factually correct: Her motion did not forbid the special counsel from continuing to meet deadlines.
"On its own terms, then, the Stay Order’s key operative sentence did not clearly bar the Government from voluntary rather than obligatory compliance with the Pretrial Order’s now-stayed deadlines," Chutkan wrote.
Trump had filed a motion that contended that the federal government violated a court order by continuing to produce discovery in the case and filing a motion while the case was paused as an appeals court considers Trump's effort to dismiss the case based on presidential immunity grounds.
The motion earlier this month came from Trump lawyer John Lauro who argued that Smith should be held in contempt for an “unlawful” production of discovery and said that federal prosecutors are engaging in “partisan-driven misconduct.”
Chutkan's opinion Thursday noted that even after she stayed the case on Dec. 13, Smith's office produced additional discovery and a draft exhibit list to Trump's legal team as well as a motion seeking to exclude certain evidence and arguments from any trial in the case.
Trump is waiting for a ruling by a federal appeals court in a case in which he argues that he's immune from being prosecuted over his election interference efforts because he was president at the time. The case is likely to end up in front of the Supreme Court.
The trial in the election case is scheduled to begin on March 4, though Chutkan suggested in her order it could be delayed as these legal matters are considered by the courts.
"Contrary to Defendant’s assertion, the court has not and will not set deadlines in this case based on the assumption that he has undertaken preparations when not required to do so," she wrote.
She then quoted a prior statement she made in which she said seven months would be “sufficient time” to prepare for trial, suggesting that an additional few weeks could be added since the case has been paused since December.