Prosecutors Seek to Protect Witnesses in Trump Classified Documents Case

A photo provided by the Justice Department, and included in the unsealed indictment of former President Donald Trump, shows document boxes in a bathroom and shower in the Lake Room at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s residence and private club in Palm Beach, Fla. (Department of Justice via The New York Times)
A photo provided by the Justice Department, and included in the unsealed indictment of former President Donald Trump, shows document boxes in a bathroom and shower in the Lake Room at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s residence and private club in Palm Beach, Fla. (Department of Justice via The New York Times)

Prosecutors have asked a federal judge to protect the identities of several witnesses involved in the criminal case accusing former President Donald Trump of illegally retaining classified documents, saying that if their names were revealed before trial, they could be exposed to “intolerable and needless risks.”

“There is a well-documented pattern in which judges, agents, prosecutors and witnesses involved in cases involving Trump have been subject to threats, harassment and intimidation,” the prosecutors wrote.

The request to protect the witnesses — made in court papers filed late Thursday night — came after Trump’s legal team asked Judge Aileen Cannon, who is overseeing the case, for permission to name some of the witnesses in court papers it recently filed related to arguments about discovery evidence.

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Cannon ultimately ruled in favor of Trump and said the witnesses could be identified. The government responded Thursday night by accusing her of having committed a “clear error” and by asking her to rethink her decision and to keep the identities of more than two dozen witnesses from being revealed.

The filing reflected what seemed to be a mounting sense of frustration with Cannon on the part of prosecutors working for special counsel Jack Smith.

The papers were filed just days before the defense and the prosecution were scheduled to meet in U.S. District Court in Fort Pierce, Florida, to discuss, among other things, a highly unusual request by Trump’s lawyers to gain access to a secret government filing concerning classified discovery evidence in the case.

Prosecutors have vehemently opposed the request, saying it lies entirely outside the normal rules governing the handling of classified material established in a federal law known as the Classified Information Procedures Act. Experts in the law say that if Cannon grants Trump’s request to see the secret filing, it would be an unprecedented expansion of the statute.

The filing Thursday by Smith’s team was only the latest effort by prosecutors to ensure the well-being of people involved in the two federal cases brought against Trump. Many participants in the other case — in which Trump stands accused of plotting to overturn the 2020 election — have also been threatened or harassed by Trump or his supporters, including the trial judge, Tanya Chutkan, and Smith himself.

In a different set of court papers filed Wednesday night, Smith’s prosecutors said that a separate criminal investigation had been opened to examine threats made on social media against one of the potential witnesses in the documents case. Prosecutors did not identify the witness in their Wednesday night filing, nor did they provide any additional details about the inquiry in their follow-up papers Thursday night.

Among the people prosecutors are seeking to protect are “career civil servants and former close advisers” to Trump, the prosecutors wrote Thursday night. They told Cannon that one of the witnesses was so concerned about threats he might face from “Trump world” that he refused to permit the government to record an interview he conducted with investigators.

Smith’s team has not yet asked for a gag order to be imposed on Trump in the classified documents case as prosecutors did in the election subversion case. Still, in their filing Thursday night, the prosecutors said that there had been a “dangerous atmosphere” for witnesses and others involved in the classified documents case even from its earliest days.

The prosecutors noted, for example, that after a magistrate judge, Bruce Reinhart, unsealed documents related to the search in August 2022 of Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private club and residence in Florida, FBI agents involved in the event were “threatened and harassed.”

The prosecutors also pointed out that both Reinhart and even Cannon herself had suffered threats. They specifically cited the case of a Texas woman who called Cannon’s chambers about one month after the search of Mar-a-Lago and left a voicemail message threatening to shoot her.

The woman, Tiffani Gish, pleaded guilty in November to making the threats and was sentenced to 37 months in prison Friday in U.S. District Court in Houston.

The government’s filing about the witnesses came shortly after the release of a report by another special counsel, Robert Hur, who determined that President Joe Biden had willfully retained and disclosed classified materials when he was out of office but that criminal charges were not warranted.

Trump’s lawyers are likely to use the report as fodder this month when they file what is known as a selective prosecution motion, accusing prosecutors of unfairly indicting Trump over much the same behavior.

Prosecutors have already lashed out at the former president’s legal team for asking Cannon for a delay in the deadline to file some of its other pretrial motions in the case. On Thursday night, the prosecutors sent a different set of papers to Cannon opposing the delay and accusing Trump’s lawyers of trying to slow-walk the case and postpone the current trial date of May 20.

“The tactics they deploy are relentless and misleading,” the prosecutors wrote. “They will stop at nothing to stall the adjudication of the charges against them by a fair and impartial jury of citizens.”

The prosecutors seemed especially outraged that Trump’s lawyers said that among the motions they planned to file was one that would claim the former president enjoyed immunity from the charges in the case. But only days ago, a federal appeals court in Washington rejected that same argument in an attempt to have the election subversion indictment tossed out.

Filing the immunity claims, however frivolous they may be, would most likely have the effect of freezing the classified documents case in place as the matter is resolved. That, in fact, is precisely what has happened in the election interference case, which has been on hold for nearly two months as Trump’s immunity arguments make their way toward the Supreme Court.

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