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Judge in Trump’s 2020 election case pauses proceedings amid dispute over immunity

Washington — The federal judge overseeing former President Donald Trump’s case involving the 2020 election has agreed to temporarily pause proceedings while Trump appeals a decision over whether he is entitled to broad immunity from criminal prosecution.

In a brief order Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan largely granted Trump’s request to halt the proceedings while he pursues his appeal. Chutkan said Trump’s appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit means she must automatically stay further proceedings that would move the case toward trial.

Later Wednesday evening, the D.C. Circuit said in an unsigned order it would fast-track its review of the district court’s decision and set a schedule for Trump and special counsel Jack Smith to file briefs in the coming weeks. Arguments, which have yet to be scheduled, will be heard by Judges Karen Henderson, Michelle Childs and Florence Pan.

In her decision, Chutkan wrote that Trump’s move gives the higher court jurisdiction over the case. She noted that if the case is returned to her she will consider “whether to retain or continue the dates of any still-future deadlines and proceedings, including the trial scheduled for March 4.” The case would return to her if Trump’s immunity claim is ultimately rejected, allowing the prosecution to move forward.

Trump was charged with four counts in August, including conspiracy to defraud the United States, with prosecutors alleging he orchestrated a scheme to resist the peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 presidential election. He pleaded not guilty to those charges and has denied wrongdoing.

Last month, Trump asked Chutkan to dismiss the charges, arguing he was shielded from federal prosecution because the alleged conduct occurred while he was president and involved acts within the “outer perimeter” of his official duties. The judge denied his assertion of presidential immunity.

While Trump asked the D.C. Circuit to review Chutkan’s decision, Smith on Monday requested the Supreme Court take up the case, a move that would bypass the appeals court altogether. The high court agreed to fast-track its consideration of whether to hear the dispute, and gave Trump until Dec. 20 to file its response to Smith’s request.

In her order Wednesday, Chutkan said she will still enforce existing measures she imposed to “safeguard the integrity” of the proceedings, like a gag order limiting what Trump can say publicly about the case and a protective order governing the use of “sensitive” evidence.

“Maintaining those measures does not advance the case towards trial or impose burdens of litigation on Defendant beyond those he already carries,” she wrote. “And if a criminal defendant could bypass those critical safeguards merely by asserting immunity and then appealing its denial, then during the appeal’s pendency, the defendant could irreparably harm any future proceedings and their participants.”

Chutkan noted, though, that she would be bound by any decision from a higher court regarding those measures.

The special counsel’s office declined to comment on the order.

The D.C. Circuit last week largely upheld Chutkan’s gag order, to the extent that it prohibits Trump from making public statements about potential witnesses in the case, lawyers, members of court staff and lawyers’ staff, and their family members. The former president can, however, criticize Smith, the Justice Department and Biden administration, and continue to assert his innocence, as well as claim that his prosecution is politically motivated.

Trump has said he will appeal the ruling from the three-judge panel, but has not formally done so yet.

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