Frustrated US district judge Aileen Cannon shuts down conflict-of-interest hearing after lawyers make surprise request
The federal judge in the criminal case about Donald Trump’s retention of classified documents rebuked prosecutors for “wasting the court’s time” on Thursday with their sudden request to partly restrict the lawyer for one of Trump’s co-defendants.
US district judge Aileen Cannon abruptly postponed the hearing after getting the request – which came after prosecutors had first said they would not seek disqualification.
“I do want to admonish the government for frankly wasting the court’s time,” Cannon said. She added she was “disappointed” that David Harbach, one of the prosecutors, had raised the request without warning, and without citing supporting cases from the southern district of Florida.
The hearing was the second in a pair of proceedings scheduled so Trump’s co-defendants, Walt Nauta and Carlos De Oliveira, could be told of their lawyers’ prior representation of witnesses during the grand jury investigation who could testify against them at trial.
Trump and Nauta were charged in an indictment alleging the illegal retention of national defense documents at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort and obstruction of justice. With De Oliveira they were charged on additional obstruction counts in a superseding indictment unsealed in July.
The prosecutors in the office of special counsel Jack Smith had asked for conflict-of-interest hearings for Nauta’s lawyer Stanley Woodward and De Oliveira’s lawyer John Irving, due to the fact they might be constrained at trial because of divided loyalties to their current and former clients.
The complication emerged at the hearing for Nauta, when prosecutors said they could not be sure how Woodward might cross-examine “Trump Employee 4”, identified by the Guardian as the IT director of Mar-a-Lago, Yuscil Taveras.
Taveras is of special interest because Woodward initially represented him during the grand jury investigation. When prosecutors told him he was a target for charges, Taveras retained a new lawyer – not paid by Trump’s PAC – and changed his sworn testimony.
The prosecutors revealed at the hearing that they now intended to call Taveras as a witness, and told the judge they believed Woodward should be precluded from engaging in cross-examination, or be allowed to call into question his credibility during closing arguments to the jury.
The cross-examination concern had been previously raised in court filings. But asking to preclude Woodward from doing closing arguments was a new request, and it seemed to irritate Cannon, who pressed Harbach on why it was being raised for the first time at the hearing.
Woodward himself raised an objection to prosecutors’ arguments, saying that the fact he had represented Taveras did not mean he could not attack his credibility at trial – and that he was not comfortable about Nauta making a decision on a potential conflict of interest until his role at trial could be resolved.
Woodward added that he had not come prepared to litigate that point because it had only just been raised by Harbach in court on Thursday. The judge agreed, particularly after Harbach acknowledged he did not have supporting cases from the eleventh circuit, which are binding.
Earlier, at the first of the pair of conflicts hearings, De Oliveira told the judge he wanted to keep his Trump PAC-funded lawyer, John Irving, even though Irving had previously represented three witnesses who could be called by prosecutors to testify against him at trial.
“I want to continue to move forward with Mr Irving,” De Oliveira affirmed.
The potential conflicts might have seemed less pressing for De Oliveira, mainly because Irving had decided beforehand that cross-examination of those witnesses would be done by his co-counsel, Donnie Murrell.
The larger issue for De Oliveira appeared to be whether he grasped the full extent of what retaining a potentially conflicted lawyer could mean. De Oliveira struggled to explicate in his own words what he understood, and earlier told the judge he could read English better than he could write.
De Oliveira’s language skills have been a topic of discussion inside the Trump legal team for months, according to people familiar with the matter. He told the judge that when he emigrated from Portugal at 17, he had not graduated high school, and never completed his secondary education.