New chief judge in Washington to oversee secret Trump trials

By Jacqueline Thomsen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A new judge will assume leadership of the U.S. Trial Court in Washington on Friday, overseeing secret trials involving criminal investigations by the Special Counsel into holding secret documents belonging to former President Donald Trump and the efforts of him and his allies to reverse his 2020 election loss.

James “Jeb” Boasberg will become Chief Justice of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, replacing Judge Beryl Howell as her seven-year term comes to an end.

The Chief Justice has sole discretion over sealed federal grand juries. That means Boasberg will immediately assume responsibility for addressing any issues that may arise in the Special Counsel’s investigation into Trump, who announced in November that he was seeking the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

Boasberg would also assume the same responsibility if a grand jury is formed in a separate Special Counsel investigation into President Joe Biden’s handling of classified documents after he left the vice presidential office. Biden, a Democrat, is expected to seek re-election in 2024.

As Chief Justice, Boasberg stands ready to rule on certain legal arguments raised in the grand jury investigation, including efforts to prevent witnesses from testifying. Grand jury proceedings are kept private.

In an interview, Boasberg declined to comment on his upcoming grand jury oversight duties. He praised his predecessor and said the court was happy to have had Howell at its helm “during this very tense time”.

“She has guided the court through COVID and dislocation in a great way, and she has also maintained a very cohesive court that has not been driven by partisan divisions,” Boasberg said.

Boasberg, a nominee for Democratic President Barack Obama, has been on the court since 2011. He was previously selected for the local DC Superior Court in 2002 by Republican President George W. Bush. Both times he was easily confirmed by the US Senate.

Special Counsel Jack Smith, who was appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland in November to handle the two Trump investigations, is presenting evidence to multiple grand juries. At issue are Trump’s keeping of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida after leaving office in January 2021 and attempts to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power following Trump’s defeat by Biden.

Another special counsel, Robert Hur, was named by Garland in January to examine classified records found at Biden’s Delaware home and former Washington office.

No sitting or former president has ever been indicted.

Boasberg, a tall and powerfully-voiced former Yale basketball team member, is well prepared to handle the cases and guide the court through the intense scrutiny that any indictment would entail, according to fellow judges and his former attorneys.

US District Judge Casey Cooper in Washington, who has known Boasberg since they attended Yale together, said Boasberg was “exactly the kind of independent thinker you’d want in this position,” calling him “incredibly even-tempered and thoughtful and fair”.

Howell commended Boasberg’s willingness to tackle high-profile and novel issues “whether or not they emerge from the grand jury that capture the limelight of national attention”.

During her tenure as Chief Justice, Howell regularly heard legal arguments in special counsel inquiries.

These included an unidentified foreign-owned company’s challenge to a grand jury subpoena issued by then-Special Counsel Robert Mueller while he was investigating the Trump campaign’s 2016 contacts with Russians, and more recently the Republican congressman’s bid Scott Perry to deny investigators access to his mobile phone and messages related to actions related to the 2020 election results.

Boasberg has struggled with difficult tasks before. In 2020 and 2021, he chaired the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which hears government requests for classified surveillance orders. His tenure came after the Justice Department’s internal watchdog revealed flaws in the department’s process of searching for the secret warrants.

Boasberg oversaw Special Counsel John Durham’s criminal case against former FBI attorney Kevin Clinesmith, who pleaded guilty in 2020 to altering an email used to justify government wiretapping of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Boasberg sentenced Clinesmith to one year probation and 400 hours of community service.

After the 2020 election, Boasberg declined a challenge from Republican lawmakers and others who had disputed Trump’s defeat and asked him to block congressional certification of Biden’s election victory.

“Courts are not instruments through which parties engage in such shenanigans or token political gestures,” wrote Boasberg, who referred attorney behind the case, Erick Kaardal, to the court’s Appeals Committee for “potential bad faith.”

(Reporting by Jacqueline Thomsen; Editing by Will Dunham and David Bario)

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