Trump’s Motion to Dismiss Mar-a-Lago Case Fails, but ‘Vague’ Defense Lives On

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Donald Trump failed to convince a federal judge to dismiss the entire Mar-a-Lago case on the notion that the nation’s restrictions on classified documents are simply too vague to be used against him for hoarding government documents at his South Florida mansion.

U.S. District Judge Aileen M. Cannon—a Trump appointee who has thus far delayed the case and swung it wildly in his favor—rejected the former president’s request to kill off the Department of Justice investigation on that point alone.

But her decision doesn’t exactly settle the matter. Cannon merely closed a door while opening another one, allowing Trump to potentially raise the same arguments later on in the case and possibly at trial.

Last month, Trump’s defense lawyers argued that DOJ Special Counsel Jack Smith can’t criminally charge the former president for “having unauthorized possession” of national defense information, because the relevant law is “unconstitutionally vague” when applied to a president. They noted that Trump, as commander-in-chief, was once the “ultimate” authority on what government documents can be declassified and was allowed to operate with wide latitude because of his official position’s executive privilege.

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The argument, taken to its logical extremes, would allow a former president to essentially do whatever they want with some of the most closely guarded national secrets. But they would explain how the former president could justify keeping boxes of classified documents in his bathroom, office, and other rooms at a highly trafficked social club that doubles as a private residence.

In their counter arguments last week, Smith’s prosecutors noted the danger in accepting Trump’s expansive view of presidential power.

“These assertions stem from Trump’s pervasive claim that his former service as president somehow exempts him from the laws and principles of accountability that govern every other citizen,” they argued. “As a former president, Trump could not have failed to understand the paramount importance of protecting the nation’s national-security and military secrets, including the obligations not to take unauthorized possession of, or willfully retain, national defense information.”

While Cannon could have rejected Trump’s theory entirely on Thursday, she instead decided to hold off on that question—noting that the indicted former president “raises various arguments warranting serious consideration” about “still-fluctuating definitions.”

“For that reason, rather than prematurely decide now,” Cannon wrote, she would allow it “to be raised” later—maybe even when coming up with instructions for the jury that would eventually determine Trump’s guilt.

However, Cannon could still derail the case in the coming weeks. She has yet to rule on Trump’s three other motions to dismiss the case. One claims that Trump can enjoy total immunity from criminal charges stemming from his time in the White House. A second argues that Trump had the power to designate these classified records as “personal” documents, which would justify his decision to take them home with him after leaving the White House. And a third says that Smith has no legal authority to prosecute him.

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