September 30, 2022 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Judge Cannon’s sideshow
The criminal investigation into the classified documents is continuing.
US District Court Judge Aileen Cannon is letting Donald Trump keep his options open. She ruled Thursday that the man who appointed her need not accuse the FBI of evidence-tampering under oath yet.
The former president has baselessly alleged that the FBI planted evidence during its search of Mar-a-Lago, which netted a trove of highly classified documents from Trump’s desk and pool closet.
In the days following the search the former president and his team stoked baseless conspiracy theories about the planting of evidence. “Planting information, anyone?’” Trump sneered on Truth Social. Trump’s lawyer Christina Bob told a right-wing news outlet that “there is no security that something wasn’t planted.” Jesse Watters of Fox News kept riffing on the theme, inviting another Trump attorney on his show to make even more baseless allegations.
Like all good conspiracy theories, the idea that the FBI planted classified documents at Mar-a-Lago coexists peacefully with an equal and opposite bit of nonsense. Trump is also admitting that he took those documents marked “classified” but that’s okay because he declassified them all with his Presidential Mind Ray before he left office. Last week, Trump insisted to Sean Hannity that the president can declassify documents “even by thinking about it.”
Wild allegations of evidence tampering are fine for Fox rubes – they’ll believe anything – but making that allegation under oath could have real consequences. It’s a lie, and lying under oath is perjury. As officers of the court, Trump’s attorneys could face serious consequences if they knowingly make false declarations to the judge. Which is why Team Trump is stalling.
Cannon is overruling the court-appointed special master, Judge Raymond Dearie, who last week commanded Team Trump to state under oath which items were supposedly planted by the FBI.
As a senior federal judge, he put it more politely, but that’s what he was getting at. Trump’s lawyers loudly protested that Dearie, whose appointment they demanded, overstepped his authority.
This judge v. judge skirmish is largely a sideshow. Dearie is only reviewing the non-classified documents seized from Mar-a-Lago.
The real action is with the classified documents that Trump is accused of illegally removing from the White House at the end of his term. Trump’s lawyers tried unsuccessfully to freeze the criminal investigation in its tracks by kicking the classified documents over to Dearie for review. Cannon agreed. A three-judge panel from the 11th Circuit ruled that Dearie can only review the non-classified material.
Team Trump wanted a special master as a delaying tactic. Imagine their disappointment when Dearie set out a relatively efficient timeline for reviewing the material to determine if any of it is covered by attorney-client privilege. Luckily for them, Judge Cannon tacked an extra 17 days onto the deadline. That’s on top of the weeks of delay Cannon allowed Trump to cause with his frivolous demand for a special master, whose rulings his lawyers now want her to ignore. This tedious process will be resolved well after the midterms, as Trump wanted.
At least Judge Cannon is making Trump pay the full cost of the special master gambit. And it’s going to be expensive. Judge Dearie isn’t asking for extra pay, but his assistant bills $500 an hour. “Failure to make timely payment will be deemed a violation of the special master’s order subject to sanction,” Dearie wrote, no doubt mindful of Trump’s well-established tendency to stiff vendors.
Cannon’s largesse is a temporary reprieve. The criminal investigation into the classified documents is continuing. All this expensive procedural wrangling has done nothing to slow the push towards an indictment. Sooner or later Trump is going to have to mount some kind of defense, and it bodes ill for him that his two main defenses are so sketchy that his attorneys don’t want to put them on the record until they absolutely have to.
Lindsay Beyerstein covers legal affairs, health care and politics for the Editorial Board. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she’s a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Find her @beyerstein.