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Former President Donald Trump’s clumsy attempt to halt the FBI investigation into the way he hoarded classified documents at Mar-a-Lago has reached its inevitable end, crashing in flames and taking with it the reputation of a young and inexperienced federal judge he appointed in his final days at the White House.
On Monday morning, U.S. District Judge Aileen M. Cannon followed orders handed down from a federal appellate court and dismissed the lawsuit in its entirety.
The case, which only lasted a little over three months, was remarkable in the way it showed how this South Florida federal judge entertained the former president’s novel legal theories—all in the service of attempting to slow down a potential criminal indictment that threatens his return to power.
From her private chambers in Fort Pierce, Florida, Cannon dismissed the case by acknowledging she lacked jurisdiction to ever entertain it.
The one-page order and its extremely brief explanation, “dismissed for lack of jurisdiction,” completely unraveled the 24-page screed she issued in September—one that shocked the legal profession because of the unprecedented way she justified inserting herself into an ongoing Department of Justice investigation.
Monday’s order noted that all deadlines are terminated, future hearings are canceled, and pending legal arguments are “denied as moot.” Gone is the legal reasoning she gave for coming to her president’s defense—along with her appointment of a special master to grind the investigation to a halt.
“Three months late but at least it’s over,” commented national security lawyer Bradley P. Moss, who sometimes advises The Daily Beast on public records disputes.
The case arose from the FBI’s Aug. 8 raid at Trump's Florida estate Mar-a-Lago, where special agents found nearly 100 classified documents in his office furniture and in cardboard boxes stacked around the busy ocean club. Prosecutors rationalized conducting the unprecedented search because of what they said was a pending threat to national security because of the sloppy and careless way some of the country’s secrets were kept at an estate that is home to political rallies, large parties, and fundraisers featuring people from all over the world—including foreign spies.
Trump’s lawyers waited three weeks to push back on those claims, engaging in a yet-unexplained game of judge assignment roulette to wait and land the friendliest judge they could. Where a past attempt had failed, this one succeeded—and Cannon waited little time before pouncing.
On Sept. 5, she issued an order that stopped the FBI agents from even touching some of the evidence they’d recovered. She also arranged for another judge—all the way in Brooklyn—to conduct a painstakingly slow review of more than 11,000 pages.
The move immediately concerned legal scholars, who called this out as blatant advocacy by a judge who owed her ascent to the very target of the investigation.
But it was only later that her own court staff screw-up revealed that she was even acting in bad faith, claiming that the former president was suffering “a real harm” by being “deprived of potentially significant personal documents.” For example, some of the “medical records” she professed to worry that feds might leak to the press—an act she deemed a “risk of irreparable injury” to the former president—actually included a doctor’s note that Trump himself made public when running for the White House in 2016 as part of a publicity stunt.
Then, when the respected, semi-retired federal judge she appointed as special master tried to hurry up the document review and speed the investigation along, Cannon went out of her way to slow it down yet again.
Last month, a panel of conservative judges at the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals finally weighed in, rejecting the legal arguments put forward by Trump’s lawyers and warning that they could severely disrupt the way the nation’s legal system works.
“We would have to be concerned about the precedent we create that would allow any target of a federal investigation to go into a district court and have it entertain this... and interfere with the executive branch’s ongoing investigation,” one of the judges said on the call.
These judges, who were all appointed by former President George H. W. Bush, a Republican, and Trump himself, showed they were unwilling to throw Trump a lifeline.
“The case ends in what should be humiliation for Judge Cannon,” said Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson. “She was resoundingly slapped down by her conservative colleagues who explained that it’s not just that she had a creative interpretation of the law. It’s that she inserted herself into a case where she didn’t belong—and essentially acted as another advocate for the former president of the United States.”
“Her decisions just completely lacked judicial restraint. That’s way out of the bounds of what’s acceptable. And she made political decisions with no legal basis,” Levinson added. “This is about as bad as it can get for a judge who seeks jurisdiction when she shouldn’t, which is to have like-minded appellate judges say, ‘What were you even thinking here?’”
The federal investigation continues, and it is now being led by special counsel Jack Smith, an aggressive war crimes prosecutor who left his post in Europe last month.