World

Trump Seeks Recusal of Judge in Federal Elections Case

Lawyers for former President Donald J. Trump on Monday asked the federal judge overseeing his looming trial on charges of trying to overturn the 2020 election to recuse herself, claiming that she has shown a bias against Mr. Trump in public statements made from the bench in other cases.

The recusal motion was a risky gambit by Mr. Trump’s legal team given that the judge, Tanya S. Chutkan, will have the initial say about whether or not to grant it. Mr. Trump’s lawyers have tried this strategy before, attempting — and failing — to have the judge overseeing his state felony trial in Manhattan step aside.

In a motion filed in Federal District Court in Washington, John F. Lauro, a lawyer for Mr. Trump, cited statements Judge Chutkan had made about the former president at hearings for two defendants facing sentencing for crimes they committed at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

At one of the hearings, in October 2022, Judge Chutkan told the defendant, Christine Priola, a former occupational therapist in the Cleveland school system, that the people who “mobbed” the Capitol on Jan. 6 showed “blind loyalty to one person who, by the way, remains free to this day.”

At the other hearing, in December 2021, Judge Chutkan told Robert Palmer, a Florida man who had hurled a fire extinguisher at police officers that day, that the “people who exhorted you and encouraged you and rallied you to go and take action and to fight have not been charged.”

Mr. Lauro argued that the statements, made before Mr. Trump was indicted in the election interference case, undermined the confidence that Judge Chutkan could “administer justice neutrally and dispassionately” and were “inherently disqualifying.”

“Although Judge Chutkan may genuinely intend to give President Trump a fair trial and may believe that she can do so,” he wrote, “her public statements unavoidably taint these proceedings, regardless of outcome.”

Judge Chutkan, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, came into Mr. Trump’s election interference case with a reputation already in place for imposing harsh sentences on some of the Capitol riot defendants who have ended up in front of her.

On a number of occasions, she has handed out penalties that were higher than those requested by the government, often punctuating her decisions with the catchphrase, “There must be consequences.”

But she is far from the only federal judge in Washington to have suggested that Mr. Trump might have culpability while punishing one of his followers who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

In June, before sentencing a California man, Daniel Rodriguez, to more than 12 years in prison for using a Taser against Officer Michael Fanone of Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department, Judge Amy Berman Jackson declared that Mr. Rodriguez had been radicalized by what she called Mr. Trump’s “irresponsible and knowingly false claims that the election was stolen.”

And in November 2021, Judge Amit P. Mehta told John Lolos, who climbed into the Capitol through a broken window, that he had been fed “falsehoods” about the election by people who had never been held accountable.

“In a sense, Mr. Lolos, I think you are a pawn,” Judge Mehta said. “You are a pawn in a game played by people who should have known better.”

Peter Carr, a spokesman for the special counsel, Jack Smith, who is overseeing the election interference case, declined to comment on the recusal motion.

While Mr. Lauro made sure to note in his nine-page motion that he was asking “respectfully” for Judge Chutkan to step aside, seeking to disqualify a jurist from a case — especially one as prominent as this one — is an aggressive move that can damage relations between a lawyer and the bench.

Mr. Lauro and Judge Chutkan have already sparred in open court, most recently last month when she set the case for trial in early March. Twice during the scheduling hearing, Judge Chutkan asked Mr. Lauro to “take the temperature down” after he attacked the prosecutors in the case.

Those prosecutors will now get to respond to Mr. Lauro’s request, and ultimately Judge Chutkan will decide whether to remain on the case. Decisions about recusal motions are generally not subject to an immediate appeal, but Mr. Trump’s legal team could at least in theory seek to challenge a denial of the request to an appellate court.

In May, when Mr. Trump’s lawyers in New York sought to remove Justice Juan M. Merchan from his case involving hush money payments to a porn actress, they argued, among other things, that the judge had donated $15 to Mr. Trump’s opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr., and that his daughter helps to run a digital marketing agency that works with Democratic candidates and stood to benefit financially from decisions he made.

But Justice Merchan dismissed the arguments in a terse ruling in which he wrote that his impartiality could not “reasonably be questioned” based on “de minimus political contributions made more than two years ago” or his daughter’s interests.

Glenn Thrush contributed reporting.

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