Judge Tanya Chutkan, known for stern sentencing in Capitol riot cases, to preside over Trump’s election fraud trial

August 3, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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In the latest criminal trial against former President Donald Trump, regarding his alleged attempt to overturn his 2020 election loss, will go ahead with U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan presiding.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, known for her firm sentencing approach in Capitol Riot cases, is set to preside over the landmark trial of former President Donald Trump for his alleged attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. Photo: Administrative Office of U.S. Courts via AP

Chutkan has garnered attention for her unyielding approach to sentencing in matters concerning the Jan. 6, 2021, riots at the U.S. Capitol. An Associated Press review of court records reveals that of the 38 people she has sentenced for their involvement in the unrest, all received prison terms, with durations spanning from 10 days to over five years.

This distinguishes Chutkan from among the two dozen judges in Washington, D.C., who have collectively passed sentences on nearly 600 defendants in connection to the Capitol siege. Chutkan’s approach has often resulted in punishments harsher than those recommended by Justice Department prosecutors, reflecting her belief in prison as a potent deterrent against potential future insurrections.

Judge Chutkan, an Obama appointee, has a previous track record of ruling against Trump in relation to the Jan. 6 events. Notably, in November 2021, she refused Trump’s bid to withhold documents from the U.S. House’s Jan. 6 committee, asserting that executive privilege was not applicable in this case.

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Chutkan underscored her view by stating that executive power does not endure indefinitely and that “presidents are not kings,” a stance reflecting her commitment to checks and balances within the American democratic system.

Former President Trump, accused of attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 election, will appear for the first time in court on Thursday before Magistrate Judge Moxila A. Upadhyaya, who will handle the initial proceedings. However, it is Chutkan who is likely to play the most influential role in the final outcomes of the trial.

Chutkan’s stern sentencing record extends to cases where prosecutors have not sought jail time. In four instances, she handed down prison sentences despite the absence of such a recommendation. This practice underlines her view, expressed in December 2021, that strong retribution is essential to send a clear message against the violent overthrow of the government and assault on law enforcement officers.

Judge Chutkan has also refuted attempts to compare the Jan. 6 insurrection to the racial injustice protests following George Floyd’s 2020 murder, calling it a “false equivalency.” She emphasized that the violence displayed in the Capitol riot posed a significant threat to the foundations of democracy, a contrast to the largely peaceful nature of civil rights protests.

As the country awaits the start of the legal proceedings against Trump, Judge Chutkan’s record suggests that the former president’s case will be handled with the same rigor and commitment to justice that has characterized her handling of the Jan. 6 cases thus far.


The House Jan. 6 committee’s final report: Trump “lit that fire”

The House Jan. 6 committee’s final report, following an 18-month investigation, concluded that Donald Trump played a pivotal role in instigating the Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021, which aimed to overturn the lawful results of the 2020 presidential election.

The report refers to Trump as the “one man” central to causing the insurrection. It suggests Trump “lit that fire” by engaging in a “multi-part conspiracy” over weeks, which culminated in the attack on the Capitol. The committee alleges that Trump’s premeditated actions involved a wide-ranging plan, developed with his advisors, to void President Joe Biden’s victory.

Over the two months between the election and the insurrection, the report indicates Trump and his inner circle made at least 200 attempts at public or private outreach, pressure, or condemnation, targeting state legislators or state or local election administrators to overturn state election results. The report describes these efforts as a direct influence on those who violently stormed the Capitol.

Trump’s frequent false claims of widespread voter fraud, amplified on social media, were said to resonate with his supporters and added to the existing distrust of government, which he had cultivated during his term in office.

When Trump’s supporters resorted to violence and stormed the Capitol, interrupting the certification of Biden’s victory, Trump did little to stop them. His inaction during the hours of violence at the Capitol is labeled a “dereliction of duty” in the report, which states that he watched the violence on television but did nothing to stop it, despite having the most power as the nation’s commander-in-chief.

In light of these findings, the committee made a series of recommendations. This includes considering barring Trump from holding future office, as the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution holds that anyone who has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution can be prevented from holding office for engaging in insurrection or rebellion. The report suggests that Congress must overhaul the Electoral Count Act, the election law that Trump tried to circumvent, to prevent future attempts at overturning lawful election results.

Furthermore, the report details Trump’s pressure on state officials, lawmakers and then-Vice President Mike Pence to manipulate the system or violate the law. This pressure was evident in his attack on Pence for not attempting to illegally thwart Biden’s win, as Congress was counting the votes. Trump’s inaction and public condemnation of Pence’s refusal to act outside his legal limits were seen as further fuel to the insurrectionist sentiments.

In summary, the report alleges that Trump, through a series of premeditated actions, played a crucial role in inciting the Capitol Riot by instilling and amplifying misinformation, exerting undue pressure on government officials, and failing to act decisively to quell the insurrection. His actions were construed as a threat to democracy and an attempt to subvert the constitutionally enshrined processes for a peaceful transfer of power.


Serious criminal charges: Legal standards and potential consequences

Trump is staring down a slew of serious criminal charges related to alleged attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. The charges comprise four primary allegations:

  1. Conspiracy to defraud the United States, relating to alleged spreading of false information about the 2020 election and efforts to discount legitimate votes.
  2. Conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, linked to alleged plans to disrupt the certification of electoral votes in January 2021.
  3. Obstruction of, and attempt to obstruct, an official proceeding, involving allegations of blocking Congress’ official certification proceeding from November 2020 until January 2021.
  4. Conspiracy against rights, a Civil War-era charge regarding alleged attempts to oppress, threaten, and intimidate voters.

In addition to these charges, Trump faces separate allegations in Florida and New York, linked to withholding classified documents and accounting of hush money payments, respectively.

Each of these charges requires prosecutors to meet exacting legal standards. The conspiracy to defraud the United States charge, for instance, mandates proving a knowing participation in an agreement to commit fraudulent acts against the government. Similarly, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding requires evidence of an agreement to obstruct such a proceeding, and the defendant’s participation therein.

Obstruction charges involve demonstrating intentional and corrupt interference with official proceedings, while conspiracy against rights necessitates proof of a willful conspiracy to infringe upon constitutionally protected rights or privileges.

Should these allegations be substantiated, Trump could face considerable jail time. General maximum penalties under federal law can range from five years for conspiracy to defraud the United States (or up to 30 years if a financial institution is affected), 20 years for both conspiracy to obstruct and obstruction of official proceedings, and up to a life sentence for conspiracy against rights, depending on the specific acts involved.

The prosecution’s burden to demonstrate guilt beyond reasonable doubt in these cases is high, as is the potential impact of these charges on Trump’s future. Legal experts, along with the nation, will be watching closely as the case unfolds before Judge Chutkan.


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