Donald Trump is pushing for his federal election interference trial in Washington to be televised, joining media outlets that say the American public should be able to watch the historic case unfold.
Federal court rules prohibit broadcasting proceedings, but The Associated Press and other news organizations say the unprecedented case of a former president standing trial on accusations that he tried to subvert the will of voters warrants making an exception.
The Justice Department is opposing the effort, arguing that the judge overseeing the case does not have the authority to ignore the long-standing nationwide policy against cameras in federal courtrooms. The trial is scheduled to begin on March 4.
Lawyers for Trump wrote in court papers filed late Friday that all Americans should be able to observe what they characterize as a politically motivated prosecution of the Republican front-runner for his party’s presidential nomination in 2024. The defense also suggested Trump will try to use the trial as a platform to repeat his unfounded claims that the 2020 election that he lost to Democrat Joe Biden was stolen from him. Trump has pleaded not guilty.
"President Trump absolutely agrees, and in fact demands, that these proceedings should be fully televised so that the American public can see firsthand that this case, just like others, is nothing more than a dreamt-up unconstitutional charade that should never be allowed to happen again," Trump's lawyers wrote.
The request for a televised trial comes as the Washington case has emerged as the most potent and direct legal threat to Trump’s political fortunes. Trump is accused of illegally scheming to overturn the election results in the run-up to the violent riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, by his supporters.
Trump has repeatedly sought to delay the Washington trial date until after the 2024 election. But U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who was nominated for the bench by Democratic President Barack Obama, appears determined to keep it as scheduled.
On Friday in Florida, U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon, who is handling the separate classified documents prosecution of Trump, pushed back multiple deadlines in a way that makes it highly unlikely that case can proceed to trial in May, as had been planned. Trump is facing dozens of felony counts under the Espionage Act. He has pleaded not guilty.
The news outlets wrote in their request to Chutkan last month that a lack of transparency can sow distrust in the legal system. They said that is particularly dangerous in a case where "a polarized electorate includes tens of millions of people who, according to opinion polls, still believe that the 2020 election was decided by fraud."
"It would be a great loss if future generations of Americans were forever deprived of being able to access and view the events of this trial even years after the verdict, which would immeasurably improve the ability of future journalists and historians to retell accurately and meaningfully analyze this unique chapter of American history," Rebecca Blumenstein, president of editorial for NBC News, wrote in a court filing.
Some state courts allow cameras in the courtroom. The public has been able to watch proceedings held by the judge overseeing the Georgia election case against Trump and 18 co-defendants.
Photographers have been permitted to take photos of Trump inside the courtroom during his civil fraud trial in New York, but the trial has not been broadcast.
The Justice Department has said that knowledge that cameras are in the courtroom can affect lawyers and witnesses in "subtle ways" and lead to grandstanding. Noting the "ever-increasing acrimony in public discourse," prosecutors said witnesses who testify on camera may also be harassed or threatened.
"When a witness’s image is captured on video, it is not just a fleeting image, but it exists indefinitely," the government said. "Were there an appeal and retrial, witnesses who were subjected to scrutiny and harassment on social media may be unwilling to testify again."
The coronavirus pandemic led the federal courts to temporarily relax its rules, allowing the public to listen to many proceedings over the telephone or video conference. The U.S. Supreme Court has continued to provide a live audio feed of its arguments since the pandemic began.
The policymaking body of the federal courts adopted a new policy in September that allows judges to provide live audio access to non-trial proceedings in civil and bankruptcy cases. It does not apply in criminal cases.
News outlets had previously asked the federal courts policymakers to revise the rules to allow broadcasting, at least in cases where there is an extraordinary public interest. The chair of the advisory committee last month agreed to establish a subcommittee to study the issue, though it's highly unlikely any rules changes would come before Trump's trial.
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