WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is challenging efforts by former President Donald Trump to disqualify the Washington judge presiding over the case charging him with plotting to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
Prosecutors with special counsel Jack Smith’s team wrote in a court filing late Thursday that there was “no valid basis” for U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan to recuse herself.
Trump’s lawyers filed a long-shot motion earlier this week urging Chutkan to step aside, citing comments she made in separate sentencing hearings related to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol that they say taint the Trump proceedings and call into question whether she has already prejudged the Republican former president’s guilt.
In one such hearing, Chutkan told a defendant who was sentenced to more than five years in prison that he had “made a very good point” that the “people who exhorted” and encouraged him “to go and take action and to fight” had not been charged. Chutkan added that she did not “make charging decisions” and had no “influence on that.”
“I have my opinions,” she said, “but they are not relevant.”
But the Justice Department said the Trump team had taken Chutkan’s comments out of context and failed to show that she harbored any bias against the former president, who lost the 2020 election to Democrat Joe Biden and falsely claimed the election was stolen from him.
The Justice Department said the statements the Trump lawyers had cited show the judge simply doing her job — responding to, and rejecting, efforts to minimize their own culpability by pointing the finger at Trump, who had told his supporters to “fight like hell” at a rally shortly before the deadly Capitol insurrection.
Chutkan did not say, prosecutors wrote, that Trump was legally or morally to blame for the events of Jan. 6 or that he deserved to be punished.
“Although the defendant tries to claim otherwise, the Court’s statements about which he complains are core intrajudicial statements — statements that the Court made while performing its official duties, in direct response to the arguments before it, and which were derived from knowledge and experience the Court gained on the bench,” the prosecutors wrote.
They added: “As such, to mount a successful recusal claim based on the cited statements, the defendant must show that they display a deep-seated animosity toward him. The defendant cannot meet this heavy burden.”
Trump’s motion is unlikely to succeed given the high standard for recusal. A similar effort to seek the recusal of a judge in a separate New York prosecution he faces was unsuccessful.