Judge rejects Trump defence that President Records Act allowed him to hoard confidential papers

The judge overseeing the classified documents case against Donald Trump has denied his motion to dismiss the case based on the Presidential Records Act (PRA), which the former president claims gives him the authority to retain papers containing national security information.

In a Thursday afternoon filing, District Court Judge Aileen Cannon denied Mr Trump’s request to dismiss the case saying the counts in the indictment made, “no reference to the Presidential Records Act” and that it “does not provide a pre-trial basis to dismiss.”

The PRA, a 1978 law, requires presidents to return official records, notes and documents to the government upon leaving office but allows them to keep personal ones.

The former president has often invoked the PRA in declaring his innocence in the case, claiming he made documents, even those containing national security information, “personal” when he took them to his Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida after leaving the White House in 2021.

Federal prosecutors have pushed back on the argument, claiming it is the wrong interpretation of the PRA.

Last month, it seemed Judge Cannon was willing to accept the PRA as a valid defence when she filed proposed jury instructions to each side, asking them to embrace parts of Mr Trump’s PRA argument.

Special Counsel Jack Smith responded to her filing earlier this week with frustration, calling her pursuit of the legal premise “wrong.”

US district judge Aileen Cannon (Southern District of Florida/Wikimedia Commons)
US district judge Aileen Cannon (Southern District of Florida/Wikimedia Commons)

But in the final paragraph of Thursday’s three-page filing, Judge Cannon also denied Mr Smith’s request for finalised jury instruction and defended her proposed jury instruction form.

Mirroring the federal prosecutors’ tone, Judge Cannon called Mr Smith’s request “unprecedented and unjust”.

She added that her proposed jury instruction should not be “misconstrued as declaring a final definition of any essential element or asserted defense in this case” and was only “a genuine attempt… to better understand the parties’ competing positions and the questions to be submitted to the jury.”

Mr Trump or Mr Smith can appeal Judge Cannon’s decision.

Judge Cannon, who was appointed to the district court by Mr Trump in 2020, is presiding over the government’s case against Mr Trump and two co-defendants who are accused of willfully retaining documents, some containing national security information, and concealing them from the federal government.

The trial was initially slated to begin in May but that start date has been pushed back to an undetermined time. Mr Trump has asked for the trial to begin after the election while federal prosecutors requested it start this summer.