OPINION: This article may contain commentary which reflects the author's opinion.
Elie Honig, a legal analyst for CNN, acknowledged that there may be some merit to Former President Donald Trump’s motion asking that Federal District Judge Tanya Chutkan recuse herself from his case.
Speaking on CNN This Morning, Honig acknowledged that Trump’s request is an “extreme longshot” legally but added that, given Judge Chutkan’s prior comments, it’s “not an outrageous motion.”
The motion for recusal was brought about by remarks made by Judge Chutkan during the sentencing of those convicted of being part of the Capitol attack on January 6. Trump’s legal team claims that these comments show a possible bias against the former president.
Judge Chutkan is quoted in the motion as saying, “The people who exhorted you and encouraged you and rallied you to go and take action and to fight have not been charged,” in reference to a defendant in the Capitol riot case.
CNN host Poppy Harlow asked: “Trump’s lawyers argue statements like those and others mean she should not be able to hear this case against Trump. They add ‘only if this trial is administered by a judge who appears entirely impartial could the public ever accept the outcome as justice.’ I know recusals don’t happen often in situations like this. There are other statements that are interesting that she’s made. Things like when she said last year, “It’s a blind loyalty to one person who, by the way, remains free to this day.” They, talking about, you would think Trump. What do you think?”
Honig responded: “So this is an extreme longshot, legally speaking. But you can see where Donald Trump’s coming from. It’s not an outrageous motion when you see various statements that Judge Charlton has made in the course of handling the prosecutions and sentencings of other January 6 rioters. She has said things that seem to pretty clearly suggest that she believed years ago Donald Trump should have been charged, should have been held accountable. And she was essentially making the point at these sentencings that, yes, you’re being prosecuted, rightly so, for storming the Capitol, but more responsible people are not.”
“The problem, however, with Donald Trump’s argument legally is that A: it’s really hard to get a judge to recuse himself or herself. And, B, you can’t base a recusal motion for the most part on something that a judge said during a court proceeding, basically because that’s a judge’s job,” he said.
“They have to take all the evidence in front of them, make decisions, make determinations sometimes about the relative culpability of other people. And so the Supreme Court has basically said if you’re trying to recuse the judge, you have to do it based on something outside of whatever she said in the scope of an actual case in court,” Honig continued.
Lawyers for Trump filed a motion late Monday that seeks to have U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan recuse herself from his Jan. 6 case after citing several instances where they believe she showed abject bias against him, even suggesting Trump should be jailed over the riot that took place that day.
In the filing, Trump’s legal team referenced public statements made by the judge, who was appointed by Obama, in cases involving defendants from January 6. Chutkan has gained a reputation for imposing some of the harshest prison sentences on non-violent protesters found guilty of obstructing an official proceeding, an offense typically resulting in fines.
“Judge Chutkan has, in connection with other cases, suggested that President Trump should be prosecuted and imprisoned. Such statements, made before this case began and without due process, are inherently disqualifying,” reads the filing.
“Although Judge Chutkan may genuinely intend to give President Trump a fair trial—and may believe that she can do so—her public statements unavoidably taint these proceedings, regardless of the outcome,” the filing continued.
“The public will reasonably and understandably question whether Judge Chutkan arrived at all of her decisions in this matter impartially, or in fulfillment of her prior negative statements regarding President Trump,” it added.
The former president’s legal team highlighted the case of Christine Priola, a Jan. 6 defendant who did not have a prior criminal record and who held a sign saying “The Children Cry Out For Justice.” Chutkan sentenced her to 15 months in prison for simply walking through the Capitol Building.
Trump’s legal team pointed to the case of Christine Priola — a January 6 defendant with no criminal record who held a sign saying “the children cry out for justice” while walking through the building — who was sentenced to 15 months in prison by Chutkan.
“This was nothing less than an attempt to violently overthrow the government, the legally, lawfully, peacefully elected government by individuals who were mad that their guy lost,” Chutkan said during sentencing.
“I see the videotapes. I see the footage of the flags and the signs that people were carrying and the hats they were wearing, and the garb. And the people who mobbed that Capitol were there in fealty, in loyalty, to one man — not to the Constitution, of which most of the people who come before me seem woefully ignorant; not to the ideals of this country; and not to the principles of democracy,” she said.
“It’s a blind loyalty to one person who, by the way, remains free to this day,” Chutkan added, which seemed to imply that she believes Trump should be behind bars.
“The public meaning of this statement is inescapable—President Trump is free, but should not be. As an apparent prejudgment of guilt, these comments are disqualifying standing alone,” Trump’s attorneys wrote in the filing.
His legal team also listed other instances in which Chutkan appeared to be dissatisfied with the fact that the former president was not in prison.
“Public statements of this sort create a perception of prejudgment incompatible with our justice system. In a case this widely watched, of such monumental significance, the public must have the utmost confidence that the Court will administer justice neutrally and dispassionately,” the filing added. “Judge Chutkan’s pre-case statements undermine that confidence and, therefore, require disqualification.”
Trump’s trial on the Jan. 6 charges, which allege he conspired to overthrow the results of the 2020 election, is slated to begin March 4, 2024, though the former president is pursuing a legal path he believes will make it all go away.