Senate Aide’s Lawyers Ask Judge to Order Trump to Stop Discussing Case
Posted June 19, 2018 5:00 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — Lawyers for James A. Wolfe, the Senate intelligence staff member accused of lying about his contacts with reporters, asked a federal judge on Tuesday to order President Donald Trump to stop commenting on the case or risk compromising Wolfe’s right to a fair trial.
In their motion, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, the lawyers, Benjamin Klubes and Preston Burton, noted that after Wolfe’s arrest on June 7 Trump told reporters the government had “caught a leaker,” calling him “a very important leaker.”
The president, who has complained vociferously about leaks to journalists, said the arrest “could be a terrific thing.” He added: “I’m a very big believer in freedom of the press, but I’m also a believer that you cannot leak classified information.”
But Wolfe, the longtime security director for the Senate Intelligence Committee, has not been charged with disclosing classified information. He faces three counts of making false statement to FBI agents, by denying that he had spoken to four reporters, including Ali Watkins, a reporter for The New York Times. Wolfe and Watkins had a three-year personal relationship that ended last year.
Prosecutors said Tuesday that they did not intend to subpoena reporters or members or staff of the Senate committee in the case. Defense lawyers said it was too early to say whom they might want to call as witnesses.
Calling Wolfe “a dedicated public servant and a decorated Army veteran,” Klubes said after a court hearing Tuesday that the Senate staff member’s Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury and his presumption of innocence “have been jeopardized by President Trump’s comments about the merits of this case.”
He said the defense was asking Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to instruct executive branch officials, “up to and including the president of the United States,” to refrain from further prejudicing the case with public comments.
The rules for federal criminal court say a judge may issue a special order “governing such matters as extrajudicial statements by parties, witnesses and attorneys likely to interfere with the rights of the accused.”
“The party seeking to convict Wolfe of a crime here is the ‘United States of America,'” Wolfe’s lawyers wrote in their motion. “President Trump and senior Department of Justice officials, while not appearing as lawyers in this court, are unquestionably senior representatives of that party.”
Jackson appeared initially skeptical of the request, saying she wondered whether the court rules would apply to people beyond lawyers and other officials directly involved in Wolfe’s prosecution. But she said she would consider it.
The issue underscored Trump’s freewheeling approach to the legal system. He has offered unrestrained opinions on the guilt of many people who have not even been charged with a crime, including Hillary Clinton, whom he defeated for the presidency in 2016, and James Comey, the former FBI director, whom he fired.
But he is not the only president to be accused of prejudicing a defendant’s rights. In 2011, President Barack Obama said publicly that Chelsea Manning, then accused of giving classified documents to WikiLeaks, “broke the law.”
Supporters of the Army private, then known as Bradley Manning, argued that the president’s remark amounted to “unlawful command influence” on the case, since Obama was commander in chief and thus Manning’s military superior. Ultimately, Manning was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in military prison, but Obama commuted her sentence after she had served about seven years.