Special counsel Jack Smith says there is “no valid basis” for Judge Tanya Chutkan to recuse herself from the case of former President Donald Trump.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed an opposing brief Sept. 14 in response to former President Donald Trump’s request that the judge presiding over his Washington case recuse herself.
“There is no valid basis, under the relevant law and facts, for the Honorable Tanya S. Chutkan, United States District Judge for the District of Columbia, to disqualify herself in this proceeding,” wrote special counsel Jack Smith.
President Trump was charged with four counts for his efforts to challenge the 2020 election results and goes to trial in Washington on March 4, 2024, the day before 16 states set their Republican primaries.
Mr. Smith is arguing that the Trump defense “cherry-picks” from her words in their motion, and that they “failed to establish any bias, much less the deep-seated antagonism required for recusal.”
The defense and prosecution expressed clear disagreement in their interpretations of the standard for recusal.
President Trump’s attorneys argued that the section on recusal “commands a judge to recuse herself if her impartiality might reasonably be questioned. The standard is not particularly high.”
They urged the judge to do so to maintain neutrality, “especially in a case, as here, where the Department of Justice answers to a President who is prosecuting his main, leading opponent in an election that will take place in just over a year. Now is not the time for the American people to second-guess a judge’s impartiality.”
Judge Chutkan is the only person who needs to rule on the motion for recusal, meaning it would be her decision to step down and have a new judge assigned, or deny the request and continue presiding over the case. If she denies the motion, it is likely President Trump’s team will file an appeal in a separate, appellate court.
Judge Chutkan is known for meting out severe sentences, including long prison sentences, to those charged with offenses related to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol breach. The DOJ has already brought forth more than 1,100 cases against those who were present at the Capitol that day, and Mr. Smith was assigned special counsel to investigate these matters last November.
President Trump’s team quoted comments Judge Chutkan made during other trials, where she ruled the event “nothing less than an attempt to violently overthrow the government,” describing the rally-goers as “people who mobbed that Capitol” in “blind loyalty to one person who, by the way, remains free to this day.” She does not mention President Trump by name, but had said during sentencing that a protestor acted as he did “because his guy lost.”
Mr. Smith argues that the quotes cited fell short of the “deep-seated favoritism or antagonism that would make fair judgment impossible.”
The brief cites other cases that failed to obtain a recusal, including one where a judge “opined on the defendant’s ‘obvious’ guilt, predicted that she would ‘get convicted’ at trial,” and it was ruled that the comments did not show knowledge gathered outside of court proceedings.
‘Invoked the Defendant’
Mr. Smith specifically points out that many Jan. 6 defendants referenced President Trump, suggesting they placed blame on him, in his response to the fact that the judge also referenced him.
“The offenders being sentenced deployed a common strategy: they invoked the defendant [Trump], and the mob on January 6, in their bids for sentencing reductions—arguing that the culpability of others, including the defendant, should reduce their own,” he wrote.
He argued that President Trump thus took the judge’s words out of context, and it was those sentenced that implicated him, not the judge.
“The Court learned that numerous individuals charged with January 6 crimes attempted to minimize their actions and spread blame to others, including to defendant Trump,” he wrote, additionally arguing that the court correctly did not reduce their sentences by shifting the blame to the former president.
As one example of such blame shifting, he cited Christine Priola’s sentencing, during which Judge Chutkan made the comments cited in the motion for recusal.
Ms. Priola had marched into the Capitol carrying a large sign and was charged with obstructing an official proceeding. She had noted that “after the presidential election, Donald Trump … and his inner circle began spreading the word that the election was ‘stolen’ from him by Democrats and others,” which Mr. Smith quoted as an example of laying “the groundwork” for shifting blame.
Mr. Smith argued that the Judge cannot be shown to have pre-judged President Trump, because she did not make statements “that the defendant was legally or morally culpable for the events of January 6 or that he deserved punishment.”
Instead, Mr. Smith argued, the harsh sentencing of Jan. 6 defendants is evidence in Judge Chutkan’s favor that she is not biased, because she did not allow the defendants to shift the blame to President Trump in her sentencing.