Uneventful, that’s how the arraignment of an ex-president went down in Miami Tuesday afternoon. And the second-most important person involved with the case wasn’t even there.
That would be Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee who has been controversial to say the least in some of her rulings in Trump’s favor. Yes, one of Trump’s “favorite judges” is currently assigned to preside over the trial, though she wasn’t in the room during his arraignment Tuesday.
Special Counsel Jack Smith was seated in the courtroom, three rows behind Trump, but Trump didn’t look around, so it’s unlikely they made eye contact. (Trump has called Smith “a deranged lunatic” and “a psycho.”)
Trump didn’t speak a word, unless you count whispering to his lawyers. He had a scowl on his face, and he sat hunched over, looking dejected, the same pose he adopted at his first arraignment in New York.
A lawyer entered Trump’s “not guilty” plea. Walt Nauta, the Navy aide charged with aiding and abetting Trump in moving and concealing boxes of documents, did not enter a plea because he didn’t have a local attorney. He’ll have to come back another day.
The proceeding was brief and perfunctory, except for a discussion about prohibiting Trump from talking to witnesses, and since some are people he interacts with every day who will be on the witness list? The DOJ said it will provide names.
Despite calls for unrest by the usual MAGA suspects, and a reasonably heightened sense of alert in the post-Jan. 6 world, there was very little tumult outside the courthouse. One protester dressed in what looked like prison stripes was tackled to the ground and arrested after dashing in front of Trump’s motorcade as he left the court. Otherwise, the crowd seemed mostly peaceful, and the extra police presence kept control of the scene.
Inside the courthouse, Smith asked for a speedy trial, and in the Florida circuit—well-known for its “rocket docket”—that means 70 days. A defendant has the right to extend the timeline, and it’s a given that Trump and his new legal team will do what they always do: introduce multiple delaying tactics.
Whether it’s the luck of the draw or something more, Trump must be happy with Judge Cannon’s assignment to the case. She’d already ruled on a portion of this case. In fact, she ruled so favorably for Trump that a three-judge panel overruled her, subjecting her to a barrage of criticism that she wasn’t up to the job, or worse, was protecting the president who put her on the bench.
She has the power to make the government’s case infinitely harder. She could even outright dismiss the case, though that would bring a storm of reputational damage down upon her.
She will be watched closely to see whether the brushback of her earlier rulings has left a lesson. For example, will she admit the evidence gained when the client-attorney privilege was pierced? (Trump lawyer Evan Corcoran was ordered to testify when a judge found Trump used Corcoran to commit a crime.)
Cannon will have the power to push the trial way into the distant future, which in politics means after the 2024 election. That gives Trump a roughly 50 percent chance to self-pardon, should he win, or be pardoned by a Republican president. The federal conviction rate in cases like this, involving national security breaches, is over 99 percent.
With a success rate like that, Cannon’s involvement takes a case that should be a slam dunk and potentially turns it into a years-long saga like background music—or a dirge—for Trump’s campaign.
She showed her cards in her earlier rulings. A member of the conservative Federalist Society, she may want to go down in history as one of Trump’s accomplices.
If she acts egregiously in Trump’s favor, Special Counsel Smith could seek to have her removed. But that would be a highly unlikely move, as it would obviously inflame the MAGA movement even further. Having Cannon in place as someone Trump thinks of as “one of my judges” makes it harder for the ex-president to claim he’s being mistreated.
The rest of us can only hope that Cannon knows the difference between fealty and fascism.