Miami braces for Trump’s historic criminal court hearing. Could trial wind up in the city, too?

Tribune Content Agency

MIAMI — Miami has hosted its share of marquee criminal defendants over the years — Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, al-Qaida jihadist Jose Padilla, and Cocaine Cowboys Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta — but no one nearly as prominent as Donald J. Trump.

This is an unprecedented federal indictment of a former president of the United States, a man who — love him or hate him — once occupied the most powerful office in the world and remains a leading candidate to regain the Republican presidential nomination.

Yet when Trump shows up for his first appearance in Miami federal court Tuesday to face 37 charges detailed in an expansive Department of Justice indictment accusing him of putting national security at risk by mishandling classified documents at his Palm Beach estate, the former president must submit to fingerprinting and routine judicial system processing like any other ordinary defendant.

As a former president, of course, there will be special treatment for the 76-year-old Trump. He’ll be accompanied by Secret Service agents for security reasons and law enforcement will line the streets as his convey arrives. His prints will be taken electronically, not with messy ink. His first appearance will occur on the 13th floor of the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. Courthouse, a gleaming glass high-rise, instead of the older concrete federal courthouse next door. Still, he’ll be ushered through probation and pretrial services office, remain in custody for hours and then be escorted by U.S. Marshals deputies into court. Business as usual, to a degree.

“Miami has had huge criminal cases in the past,” said lawyer Jeffrey Sloman, who served as the top federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Florida during a 20-year career there. “All of this is being planned out, so there is no muss or fuss. This is not our first rodeo.”

But there is no escaping that this will go down as a historic rodeo, marking the first time a former president has ever been formally charged with a federal crime. In Trump’s case, there are multiple potential felonies: including sharing defense secrets with unauthorized persons and obstructing government efforts to retrieve the records from his Palm Beach estate. It’s this serious: The maximum penalties for the charges call for decades in prison.

Of course, persuading a jury to convict a former president remains a huge uncertainty, let alone sending one to prison — as do other critical elements of the case, including which federal judge in the Southern District will wind up overseeing it and where a trial might unfold. Miami could simply go down as the site of Trump’s arraignment but it also could possibly host what will certainly be on the country’s most closely watched trials.

At the moment, and adding to the political and legal questions surrounding the case is the randomly assigned judge who could preside over his case: U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon was selected “off a wheel” from among four federal judges in the West Palm Beach of the Southern District of Florida.

Her oversight would instantly be in question, at least with TV talking heads and in the social media sphere. She was widely criticized for her handling of Trump’s civil case challenging the FBI’s seizure of classified documents at his private residence, Mar-a-Lago, last summer. An appellate court, including other Trump-nominated judges, issued a scathing ruling overturning her favorable decisions for the former president in that dispute.

Cannon, normally based in the Fort Pierce section of that division, was nominated by Trump and joined the federal bench just days after he lost the presidential election in November 2020. It remains to be seen whether Cannon — who could handle Trump’s first court appearance instead of a customary magistrate judge — will stay on the case after the former president receives a bond, enters his plea and is released from custody.

Miami attorney Joseph DeMaria, who once worked in the Justice Department’s organized crime task force in South Florida, said there may be no legal reason to disqualify Cannon from staying on the Trump case. But he said that the American public is so divided politically that if she chooses to stick with it, many people might not have faith in the outcome.

“Should she recuse herself?” asked DeMaria, a Republican. “As a citizen, I think she should. Donald Trump is entitled to a fair trial, but the people of this country also deserve a fair trial.”

If Cannon were to step aside for any reason, the Trump case would be randomly assigned again to one of the other three federal judges in the West Palm Beach division: Robin Rosenberg, Donald Middlebrooks or Kenneth Marra.

But if Cannon elects to stay on the case, DeMaria said Trump’s legal team should try to move his trial as far north as possible in the Southern District — such as West Palm Beach or even Fort Pierce — where jury candidates might be more supportive of the former Republican president.

“We’re culturally mixed in Miami, so it’s a mixed bag and unpredictable,” DeMaria said. “If I were Donald Trump’s lawyers, I would try to move this case to Fort Pierce, which is heavily Republican.”

Cannon is also based in that federal courthouse.

Sloman, the former U.S. attorney in Miami who is a Democrat, said it’s more likely that Trump’s case would stay in Miami for security reasons, even if potential jurors would all be from Miami-Dade County. He also questioned the idea of bringing jury candidates from Palm Beach County to Miami for Trump’s trial.

“They are not going to get a pool of jurors in West Palm Beach and bus them down to Miami,” said Sloman, who also doubted that Trump’s defense team would succeed in changing the venue of the case.

The Justice Department’s appointed special counsel Jack Smith, who has been assisted in the Trump documents case by two Miami federal prosecutors, Karen Gilbert and Matthew Thakur, would likely fight any request for a change of venue.

However all these issues sort themselves out, one thing is for sure. Trump is confronting a menacing indictment: 37 counts accusing him of sharing defense secrets with unauthorized persons, mishandling classified documents after leaving office and obstructing the government’s efforts to retrieve the records from his Palm Beach estate.

The 49-page indictment — returned by a Miami federal grand jury Thursday and released by the Department of Justice Friday —accuses Trump of willfully retaining national defense secrets in violation of the Espionage Act, making false statements and conspiracy to obstruct justice. It included far more charges than Trump’s defense team had earlier in the week suggested he might face.

A former presidential aide, Waltine Nauta, who continued to work for Trump after he left the White House, was also charged in a 38th count and other offenses in the indictment.

So Trump — unless Nauta doesn’t cut a plea deal — won’t be standing trial alone.

There is one other certainty: The former president will fight the prosecution — especially outside the courtroom, where he has repeatedly taken to social media, cable TV and other outlets to proclaim that he is a victim of politically driven prosecutors pursuing the “Greatest Witch Hunt of all time.”

It now appears that a federal jury somewhere in South Florida will have the final word on that.