Trump legal news brief: Mark Meadows again tries to dodge Georgia charges, judges seem unconvinced

Yahoo News' succinct daily update on the criminal and civil cases against the 45th president of the United States.

Mark Meadows.
Then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows speaks to reporters in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 21, 2020. (Al Drago/Reuters)
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Lawyers for former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows argue that Meadows was acting in his role as a federal official when he aided former President Donald Trump’s efforts to secure a second term even after states had certified his defeat — and that Meadows’s Georgia case should be moved to federal court as a result.

Georgia election interference

Appeals court skeptical of Mark Meadows’s push to move his criminal case to federal court

Key players: Former Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows; U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit; Fulton County, Ga. District Attorney Fani Willis

  • Willis charged Meadows in August with breaking Georgia’s RICO law and soliciting Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to violate his oath of office, citing Meadows’s participation in the infamous Jan. 2, 2021, phone call during which Trump urged Raffensperger to “find, uh, 11,780 votes, which is one more than [the 11,779-vote margin of defeat] we have.”

  • Meadows’s hope is that a federal court would dismiss the charges against him on immunity grounds.

  • “What the prosecution here is for … are acts taken in the West Wing of the White House, by the highest appointed White House official,” said Meadows attorney George Terwilliger.

  • But the judges seemed unconvinced, according to reports. One said it “cannot be right” that “everything” done while serving as chief of staff should be considered “within [Meadows’] official duties” — naming “electioneering on behalf of a specific political candidate” and “an alleged effort to unlawfully change the outcome of the election” as examples of actions that would fall outside that category. Another cited federal law prohibiting government officials from engaging in political activity as part of their job.

  • Even the court’s staunchly conservative chief judge signaled that the state-to-federal “removal” procedure might not apply to former federal officials like Meadows because state charges against them don’t interfere with “ongoing operations of the federal government.”

  • The court did seem concerned that the prospect of facing state criminal charges after leaving office would have a “chilling effect” on current federal officials.

  • It is unclear when the panel will rule. Both sides will have the option to appeal to the Supreme Court. In September, a federal district judge already turned down Meadows’s bid to move his prosecution to federal court.

Why it matters: Four of Trump’s co-defendants in the sprawling Georgia racketeering case — including three of his former attorneys — have already cut deals with prosecutors to plead guilty and testify. If Meadows’s appeals are denied and he doesn’t follow suit, he will go to trial in Georgia alongside Trump.

________________

Wednesday, Dec. 13

________________

The U.S. Supreme Court building, viewed from the base of the front steps.
The U.S. Supreme Court building. (Kevin Wurm/Reuters)

Just days after signaling it would fast-track consideration of former President Donald Trump’s claim that he is immune from prosecution for alleged crimes committed while in office, the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to decide another key question stemming from the events of Jan. 6, 2021: whether people involved that day in disrupting the certification of Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory can be charged under a federal law that makes it a crime to corruptly obstruct an official congressional proceeding.

More than 300 defendants face such charges — including Trump himself.

The back-to-back headlines mark the start of a new phase of Trump’s tangled legal odyssey, in which the high court, with its 6-3 conservative majority, will take steps that could delay or even derail Trump’s looming federal trial for election interference. Here are the latest legal developments in the cases facing the man who hopes to return to the White House.

Jan. 6 election interference

Justices to decide scope of obstruction charge central to Trump’s case

Key players: Special counsel Jack Smith; the U.S. Supreme Court; Jan. 6 defendant Joseph Fischer

  • Two of the four counts in the federal election interference indictment against Trump are based on a 2002 law — which grew out of the collapse of Enron — that makes it illegal to obstruct an official proceeding. Smith has accused Trump of personally obstructing the certification proceeding at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and conspiring with others to obstruct it.

  • The obstruction charge — which carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years for a person who corruptly “alters, destroys, mutilates, or conceals a record, document, or other object,” or “otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding” — is among the most widely used felony charges for Jan. 6 prosecutors. At least 152 rioters have been convicted at trial or pleaded guilty to obstructing an official proceeding, and at least 108 of them have been sentenced, according to the Associated Press.

  • But lawyers for Fischer, a former Pennsylvania police officer turned rioter, are seeking to dismiss the obstruction charge, arguing that the original 2002 law was designed to outlaw the destruction of corporate documents in cases of financial wrongdoing. In April, a federal judge granted Fischer’s motion to dismiss, saying the law required defendants to take “some action with respect to a document, record or other object.”

  • After an appeals court reversed that decision, ruling that the law “applies to all forms of corrupt obstruction of an official proceeding,” Fischer’s lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court. Seeking clarity, the Biden administration urged the justices to hear the case.

Why it matters: The Supreme Court’s decision to wade in suggests that at least four justices believe there is a legitimate argument against applying the 2002 obstruction statute to the events of Jan. 6. If the court ultimately upholds Fischer’s appeal, it would invalidate hundreds of Jan. 6 obstruction charges — including Trump’s.

That would not affect Smith’s two other charges against the former president: conspiring to defraud the United States by lying about his election loss and plotting to deprive millions of Americans of the right to have their votes counted. But it would limit prosecutors’ case against him.

And regardless of how the court rules, the fact that it won’t even hear arguments until March or April — and won’t decide until June — means that the trial itself, currently scheduled to start in March, will likely be delayed.

Jan. 6 election interference

Judge hits pause until immunity issue is sorted out, possibly delaying federal trial

Key players: Judge Tanya Chutkan; special counsel Jack Smith; the U.S. Supreme Court

  • In a brief order Wednesday, Chutkan acknowledged that Trump’s appeal for presidential immunity from federal Jan. 6 prosecution “automatically stays any further proceedings that would move this case towards trial or impose additional burdens of litigation on [the] Defendant.”

  • Earlier this week, Smith, who is prosecuting the former president on charges stemming from his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to quickly rule on Trump’s claim that he is immune from prosecution. The high court said it would expedite consideration of Smith’s request and gave Trump’s legal team until Dec. 20 to file a response.

Why it matters: The trial has been frozen in place until the immunity issue is resolved — which means further delays are likely. “If jurisdiction is returned to this court, it will — consistent with its duty to ensure both a speedy trial and fairness for all parties — consider at that time whether to retain or continue the dates of any still-future deadlines and proceedings, including the trial scheduled for March 4, 2024,” Chutkan explained in her order.

E. Jean Carroll defamation

Another court rejects Trump’s request for presidential immunity, setting up Supreme Court battle

Key players: E. Jean Carroll; the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan

  • In 2019, Carroll, a longtime advice columnist, accused Trump of raping her decades earlier. In response, Trump accused Carroll of fabricating the claim to boost her book sales, and Carroll sued him for defamation.

  • In a separate civil trial earlier this year, a jury found Trump liable for sexual battery and defamation against Carroll — but not rape — and ordered him to pay her $5 million in damages.

  • But Carroll’s original defamation-only suit from 2019 remains unresolved. As part of a partial judgment made earlier this year, a federal judge already found that Trump had defamed Carroll. All that’s left to be decided is how much money Trump owes Carroll in damages.

  • Seeking to delay, Trump’s lawyers have argued that he was acting within the scope of his office when he accused Carroll of making up her rape accusations — and should therefore have absolute immunity from personal tort lawsuits under the Westfall Act.

  • But on Wednesday the Second Circuit upheld an earlier decision from Kaplan, the presiding judge, that presidential immunity is waivable — and that Trump had waived it by not invoking the defense when he first responded to Carroll’s original lawsuit.

Why it matters: A Trump attorney called the ruling “fundamentally flawed” and said the former president will seek the Supreme Court’s review. But unless the court sides with Trump, the Carroll case will go to trial on Jan. 16 — one day after the Iowa caucuses.

Recommended reading

________________

Monday, Dec. 11

________________

Credit: Photos: Alex Wong/Getty Images; David Dee Delgado/Getty Images
Credit: Photos: Alex Wong/Getty Images; David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

Special counsel Jack Smith asks the Supreme Court to quickly rule on whether former President Donald Trump is immune from criminal prosecution for alleged crimes he committed while in office, and the nation's high court agrees to expedite its ruling. Trump decides not to testify at his civil fraud trial in New York. Here are the latest legal developments in the cases facing the man who hopes to return to the White House.

Jan. 6 election interference

Special counsel Jack Smith asks SCOTUS to rule on Trump’s ‘absolute immunity’ claim

Key players: Special counsel Jack Smith; Judge Tanya S. Chutkan; the United States Supreme Court

  • Special counsel Jack Smith, who is prosecuting the former president on charges stemming from his plot to overturn the 2020 election, asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday to quickly rule on Trump’s claim that he is immune from prosecution.

  • The nation's high court said it would expedite consideration of Smith's request, and gave Trump's legal team until Dec. 20 to file a response.

  • Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, who is overseeing the case, had rejected Trump’s claim of “absolute immunity” from the election interference indictment because it was based on actions he took while he was in office. The former president appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

  • “This case presents a fundamental question at the heart of our democracy: whether a former president is absolutely immune from federal prosecution for crimes committed while in office,” Smith wrote in a letter to the nation’s high court. “It is of imperative public importance that respondent’s claims of immunity be resolved by this court and that respondent’s trial proceed as promptly as possible if his claim of immunity is rejected.”

  • Smith’s urgency stems from a packed political calendar. The trial is scheduled to begin in Washington’s federal district court on March 4 — a day before Super Tuesday, when 15 states and one territory will hold presidential primary elections.

  • It is one of four separate criminal cases Trump is facing as he seeks another term in office. He remains the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. The general election will be held on Nov. 5, 2024.

Why it matters: If the federal trial were to be put off until after the 2024 election and Trump were to win, legal experts have said that he could have his attorney general simply dismiss the charges and the special counsel.

Civil fraud trial

Former President Donald Trump sits at the defense table flanked by attorneys Christopher Kise, left, and Alina Habba, right, at New York Supreme Court on Dec. 7. (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP)
Former President Donald Trump sits at the defense table flanked by attorneys Christopher Kise, left, and Alina Habba, right, at New York Supreme Court on Dec. 7. (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP)

Trump abruptly decides not to testify

Key players: Judge Arthur Engoron; New York Attorney General Letitia James

  • On the eve of his expected testimony at the ongoing civil fraud trial in New York, Trump announced that he would not be returning to the witness stand.

  • "I have already testified to everything & have nothing more to say," he wrote in a lengthy, all-caps post Sunday on Truth Social, his social media platform.

  • Trump testified last month at the trial in a circuslike appearance during which Judge Arthur Engoron implored him to answer questions and leave politics out of the courtroom.

  • Engoron had imposed a gag order on Trump barring commentary about the judge’s staff after the former president attacked one of his clerks on his social media platform.

  • Trump’s attorney Alina Habba said she advised him not to testify with a gag order in place.

  • In a statement Sunday, New York Attorney General Letitia James said that whether or not Trump testifies, her office has “already proven that he committed years of financial fraud and unjustly enriched himself and his family.”

Why it matters: The trial is expected to conclude this week after 11 weeks of testimony. Engoron, who has already found that a decade of Trump’s financial statements were fraudulent, will then decide on penalties. His decision is not expected until early next year.

Recommended reading