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High-stakes closed door hearings over evidence in Trump Mar-a-Lago documents case set for Monday

The classified documents criminal case against Donald Trump and others is heating up again Monday with crucial hearings over access to evidence that could impact whether the former president is tried before the November election.

Trump arrived at the federal courthouse Monday morning in Fort Pierce, Florida, for a closed-door hearing with Judge Aileen Cannon without prosecutors present to discuss the case “in detail.” Trump left the courthouse shortly after 2 p.m. ET, waving to a crowd from his car.

Special counsel Jack Smith’s team is scheduled to meet with Cannon Monday afternoon.

Neither hearing is open to the public.

The defense lawyers will argue for access to classified evidence in the case they or their clients haven’t yet seen – and that prosecutors and intelligence agencies seek to keep from them, potentially giving them only summaries of the information because of how sensitive it is, according to the court record.

While many of the Mar-a-Lago documents case proceedings and filings have been kept out of the public’s view in recent weeks, the prosecutors and defense teams have been preparing for trial.

The defense teams have been furiously at work over the past several days – including on Super Bowl Sunday – preparing for the hearing Monday, writing motions and reviewing evidence in a sensitive compartmented information facility, called a SCIF, in Florida, according to multiple sources familiar with the team.

In addition to the hearing, they face a major deadline for court filings in less than two weeks, as they continue to strategize for ways to delay the trial. They are also fighting with prosecutors over making witness names public now, well before the trial.

Court cases with classified evidence such as this require careful oversight by the judge to make sure defense teams can access evidence they need to prepare for trial while protecting the federal government’s national security secrets. That sometimes prompts extended court proceedings to determine which pieces of classified evidence defense lawyers and even defendants can see. In Trump’s case, the complexities of the case, the multiple defendants, and the number of classified records that are part of the evidence could lead to delays.

A March 1 hearing with Cannon is expected to address whether the trial can go forward in May as scheduled.

The Justice Department previously said what it seeks to keep from Trump’s co-defendants Walt Nauta and Carlos De Oliveira amounts to at least 5,500 pages – some of which their lawyers, Trump and his defense team already can work through in a SCIF.

The records being kept from the co-defendants are largely the documents with classified markings found in boxes at Mar-a-Lago by the FBI in August 2022, according to court filings. Lawyers for Nauta and De Oliveira have argued they should get more access so they can “meaningfully discuss the viability” of their defenses, a matter that is likely to be discussed in the sealed proceeding Monday.

A smaller group of records is also being kept from Trump and his lawyers because of the federal government’s national security sensitivities. Cannon has already heard arguments in person from the special counsel’s office once and has seen sworn statements from intelligence agencies on the need to keep some records secret even from the defense teams.

At a later date, Cannon will have to decide which pieces of evidence are necessary to use during a public trial and how that information can be presented.

Debate over witness safety and delays

The tensions in the Mar-a-Lago case extend beyond the defense teams’ access to evidence. The special counsel’s office is seeking to keep secret from the public names of witnesses who could be called to testify against Trump at trial, saying witnesses could be harassed.

Those witnesses include government personnel from the National Archives, more than 20 FBI agents who were at the search of Mar-a-Lago, people who had relationships with Trump and his co-defendants, and other career civil servants. Smith cited myriad threats against judges, prosecutors and witnesses, including one threat toward a witness on social media that is the subject of a federal criminal investigation.

Though scant information is public about the closed-door fights between Trump, his co-defendants and the special counsel, the former president has made clear that he believes the drama about discovery and classified information should delay the trial’s scheduled start date in May.

Trump’s attempt to delay the trial underpins several of his recent moves in court.

Smith made clear his frustration with these attempts, writing in a court filing recently that the defense “will stop at nothing to stall the adjudication of the charges against them by a fair and impartial jury of citizens.”

Smith alleged Trump is using a series of legal challenges the former president’s team said they plan to file as part of his efforts to delay the trial. Several major filings are due from the defense on February 22, largely as they attempt to cut out portions of the charges or have the case dismissed. But the defense team wants some of those filings to come in later, saying they will rely on Cannon’s decision over their access to classified records.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

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