U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan said Wednesday she won’t recuse herself from Donald Trump’s 2020 election interference case in Washington, rejecting the former president’s claims that her past comments raise doubts about whether she can be fair.
Chutkan, who was nominated to the bench by President Barack Obama and was randomly assigned to Trump’s case, said in her written decision that she sees no reason to step aside. The case, scheduled for trial in March, accuses the Republican of illegally scheming to overturn his election loss to Democrat Joe Biden.
There’s a high bar for recusal, and legal experts had widely considered Trump’s request to be a long shot aimed at undermining the legitimacy of the case publicly that could only sour the relationship between the judge and the defense in court.
Lawyers for Trump did not immediately return an email seeking comment.
In seeking Chutkan's recusal, defense lawyers cited statements she had made in two sentencing hearings of participants in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol in which they said she had appeared to suggest that Trump deserved to be prosecuted and held accountable. They said the comments suggested a bias against him that could taint the proceedings.
But Chutkan vigorously objected to the those characterizations of her comments.
"It bears noting that the court has never taken the position the defense ascribes to it: that former ‘President Trump should be prosecuted and imprisoned,’” Chutkan wrote. “And the defense does not cite any instance of the court ever uttering those words or anything similar.”
It’s the second time Trump has tried unsuccessfully to get a judge removed from one of the criminal cases against him. Judge Juan Manuel Merchan, who is overseeing Trump’s New York hush money criminal case, rejected similar demands that he step aside, saying he is certain of his “ability to be fair and impartial.”
Chutkan has stood out as one of the toughest punishers of defendants charged in the Jan. 6 insurrection, in which a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. Trump, the early front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, has personally assailed her on social media as he tries to make the case that the prosecution is politically motivated.
Federal special counsel Jack Smith’s team said there was no valid basis to have Chutkan removed from the case. Like Chutkan, they said she never said that Trump was legally or morally to blame for the events of Jan. 6 or that he deserved to be punished.
Chutkan wrote in her order that though recusal is a valid step when merited, judges should not step aside “without cause,” as she suggested the Trump lawyers were asking her to do.
Trump's team had pointed in their recusal bid to a sentencing hearing for a Jan. 6 defendant in which Chutkan said the rioters had "blind loyalty to one person who, by the way, remains free to this day.” Chutkan wrote in her decision Wednesday that she was merely stating an “undisputed fact,” – that Trump was free — “but it went no further.”
Chutkan is also considering a request by Smith’s team for a narrow gag order that would bar Trump from making “inflammatory” and “intimidating” comments about witnesses, lawyers and other people involved in the case. Trump's lawyers objected this week to that request.
Chutkan has scheduled the trial to begin March 4, 2024, over the vigorous objections of defense lawyers who said that would not give them enough time to prepare. The case in Washington’s federal court is one of four criminal cases confronting the former president as he seeks to regain the White House.