Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Conway, South Carolina on February 10, 2024.
The criminal case over classified documents against Donald Trump and others heats up again on Monday, with crucial hearings over access to evidence that could affect whether the former president is tried before the November election.
But even then, the proceedings before Judge Aileen Cannon in federal court in Fort Pierce, Florida, will not be public.
On Monday, Trump and his lawyers will meet with Cannon for several hours in a closed-door hearing without prosecutors present to discuss the case “in detail,” according to court documents. Special Counsel Jack Smith’s team will then meet with Cannon.
Trump is expected to attend Monday’s closed-door hearing, two sources familiar with the matter told CNN. But a senior aide warned that the former president could always change his mind at the last minute because he was not required to attend.
Defense attorneys are arguing for access to classified evidence in the case that they or their clients have not yet seen — and that prosecutors and intelligence agencies want to deny them, perhaps giving them only summaries of the information because of their sensitivity. according to court records.
While many of the Mar-a-Lago documents, proceedings and files remained hidden from public view in recent weeks, prosecutors and defense teams prepared for trial.
According to several sources familiar, defense teams have been busy preparing for Monday’s hearing in recent days, including Super Bowl Sunday, writing motions and reviewing evidence at a sensitive information facility called SCIF in Florida with the team .
In addition to the upcoming hearing, they face an important court filing deadline in less than two weeks as they continue to develop strategies to delay the trial. They are also at odds with prosecutors over making witnesses’ names public now, long before the trial.
Trials involving confidential evidence like this require careful oversight by the judge to ensure defense teams can access evidence they need to prepare for trial while protecting the federal government’s national security secrets. This sometimes leads to extended trials to determine what secret evidence defense attorneys and even defendants can see. In Trump’s case, the complexity of the case, the numerous defendants and the number of secret recordings that are part of the evidence could lead to delays.
A hearing with Cannon on March 1 is expected to determine whether the trial can proceed as planned in May.
The Justice Department previously said it wanted to withhold at least 5,500 pages from Trump’s co-defendants Walt Nauta and Carlos De Oliveira – some of which their lawyers, Trump and his defense team can already work through in a SCIF.
The records kept by the co-defendants are mostly documents with secret markings that the FBI found in boxes at Mar-a-Lago in August 2022, court records show. Lawyers for Nauta and De Oliveira have argued that they should be given more access so they can meaningfully discuss “the viability” of their defense, a matter likely to be discussed in the sealed proceedings on Monday.
Because of the federal government’s sensitivity to national security, a smaller group of records is also being withheld from Trump and his lawyers. Cannon has already personally heard arguments from the special counsel’s office and seen affidavits from intelligence agencies about the need to keep some records secret even from the defense team.
At a later date, Cannon will have to decide which pieces of evidence must be used in a public trial and how that information can be presented.
Debate over witness security and delays
Tensions in the Mar-a-Lago case extend beyond defense teams’ access to evidence. The special counsel’s office is trying to keep secret the public names of witnesses who could testify against Trump in court, saying witnesses could be subject to harassment.
Those witnesses include government employees at the National Archives, more than 20 FBI agents who searched Mar-a-Lago, people who had relationships with Trump and his co-defendants, and other career officials. Smith cited countless threats against judges, prosecutors and witnesses, including a threat to a witness on social media that is the subject of a federal criminal investigation.
Although there is little information about the closed-door arguments between Trump, his co-defendants and the special counsel, the former president has made it clear that he believes the drama over discovery and classified information is likely to delay the trial’s scheduled start in May.
Trump’s attempt to delay the trial underscores several of his recent court moves.
Smith made clear his frustration with these attempts, writing in a recent court filing that the defense “will stop at nothing to prevent the determination of the charges against them by a fair and impartial jury of citizens.”
Smith claimed that Trump plans to file a series of lawsuits that the former president’s team is reportedly planning to file as part of his efforts to delay the trial. There are several important motions to be filed by the defense on February 22, primarily as it seeks to have parts of the charges excised or the case dismissed. However, the defense team wants some of those files to come in later, saying they will rely on Cannon’s decision about their access to classified documents.
This story has been updated with additional information.