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Federal judge declines to recuse herself from Trump election interference case

 Tanya Chutkan rejected former president’s claims that her past comments raised doubts about her fairness

The federal judge presiding in Donald Trump’s criminal case over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results rejected his request that she recuse herself on Wednesday, ruling the former president failed to show her previous comments about his role in the January 6 Capitol attack meant she could not be impartial.

The decision means the case remains with Tanya Chutkan, the US district judge who was randomly assigned it after Trump was indicted last month on charges that he conspired to obstruct the peaceful transfer of power, though Trump can ask the DC circuit to overrule her with a writ of mandamus.
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Trump has long complained that Chutkan was biased against him based on remarks she made about him during sentencing in other January 6 riot defendant cases. But he faced an uphill struggle in trying to get Chutkan to recuse because, to succeed, he needed to satisfy a particularly high evidentiary threshold.

“Justice … demands that judges not recuse without cause. In the wrong hands, a disqualification motion is a procedural weapon to harass opponents and delay proceedings,” Chutkan said in her ruling, a line with resonance in the wake of Trump’s indications that his overarching legal strategy is to delay his cases beyond the 2024 election.

The ramifications of an extended delay could be far-reaching. If the case is not adjudicated until after the 2024 election and Trump is re-elected, he could try to pardon himself or direct the attorney general to have the justice department drop the case in its entirety.

In a 20-page opinion, the judge said Trump did not meet the standard for her to take herself off the case, citing a supreme court ruling that said a judge’s statements made in a judicial setting do not constitute a basis for a motion to recuse unless they implied some deep-seated favoritism.

The judge ruled that the two instances of her expressing her opinion about Trump’s potential culpability – which Trump argued showed her bias – did not rise to that standard and chastised Trump’s lawyers for contending that her comments showed she wanted Trump to be prosecuted and imprisoned.

Trump had pinpointed two statements in his recusal motion filed earlier in September.

The first was Chutkan’s statement in October 2022 when she told one January 6 riot defendant, referring to the attack: “And the people who mobbed the Capitol were there in fealty, in loyalty, to one man … It’s a blind loyalty to one person who, by the way, remains free to this day.”

The second was in December 2021 when Chutkan told another January 6 riot defendant: “The people who exhorted you and and encouraged you and rallied you to go and take action and to fight have not been charged,” adding she had “her opinions” about what should happen.

But the judge noted that those statements came in the course of her considering the defendants’ arguments contending they had stormed the Capitol at Trump’s implicit direction – and that she ultimately rejected their arguments attempting to pin their criminal liability on the former president.

“Those decisions undercut any notion that the court, in carrying out its sentencing duties with regard to Palmer and Priola, were pre-judging [Trump’s] guilt in this case,” Chutkan wrote.

The judge added Trump had a weak case based on legal precedent, after the DC circuit rejected a recusal motion against the US district judge John Sirica during the Watergate prosecutions, even after he had said he believed “criminal liability extended beyond the seven persons there charged” – which arguably went further than her remarks.

Filing a recusal motion is not necessarily uncommon and federal judges tend not to take offense, former prosecutors and defense attorneys have said, even if Trump files them almost as a matter of routine. Recently, Trump sought to recuse the state court judge in his Manhattan criminal case, which was denied.

A Trump spokesperson declined to address whether the former president would appeal the decision but said in a statement: “Disqualification is required whenever a reasonable person might conclude that the court is biased, such as is the situation here.”

Chutkan, an Obama appointee, came to the case with a reputation of being particularly tough in January 6-related prosecutions after she handed down sentences in some cases that were longer than had been requested by the justice department.


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