WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge on Thursday shot down an unprecedented bid by an ex-Senate intelligence committee staffer to prevent President Donald Trump from talking publicly about the staffer’s criminal case.
Attorneys for the staffer, James Wolfe, had strongly objected to comments the president made the day after their client’s arrest on June 7 calling Wolfe “a very important leaker.” Though Trump did not refer to Wolfe by name during his June 8 comments to the press, he said the development “could be a terrific thing.”
“I’m a big, big believer in freedom of the press,” Trump had said. “But I’m also a believer in classified information. It has to remain classified.”
Wolfe, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s long-time director of security, is charged with lying to federal investigators about his contacts with four journalists during an investigation of classified leaks, not with leaking classified information.
He has pleaded not guilty to three counts of making false statements.
On Thursday afternoon defense attorney Benjamin Klubes with Buckley Sandler argued that the court should intervene to mitigate the risk that any future such prejudicial comments from the president could poison the jury pool and prejudice Wolfe’s Sixth Amendment rights.
“He is not simply a third party opining on a television show on a criminal case,” Klubes said.
Klubes argued that as the chief executive over the Department of Justice, the president should be subject to the court’s authority under a rule that permits the court to restrict extrajudicial statements in widely publicized or sensational cases.
U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson however noted that high-level officials often make public statements about criminal cases, even ones that mischaracterize the nature of a case.
Such statements don’t rise to the level of warranting the court’s intervention because they do not inevitably lead to an unfair trial, Jackson said.
“The bottom line is in this day and age any high profile case is likely to be spoken about and reported on,” Jackson said.
Jackson denied the motion from the bench during a 30-minute afternoon hearing. Klubes offered no comment to reporters afterward.
Department of Justice attorney Laura Ingersoll meanwhile kept her comments on the matter brief, saying in court only that the government believes jury instructions from Jackson would be sufficient to mitigate any potential harm to Wolfe.
In a July 12 brief, prosecutor Tejpal Chawla pointed out that the president’s June 8 comments were prompted by a reporter who had asked, “Are you glad they caught a leaker?”
Chawla also argued that the incident seemed to be isolated.
“The defendant has not identified any extrajudicial comment by any other member of the Executive Branch, and, to date, government counsel is unaware of any further comment by the President about this case,” the brief says.
Wolfe retired from his post with the Senate intelligence committee in May. According to the June 7 indictment, Wolfe lied about having repeated contact with three journalists in December 2017 when federal investigators questioned him about press stories containing classified information the executive branch had given to the committee.
Prosecutors say he also lied about giving nonpublic information to two reporters pertaining to committee matters.
Though not named in the indictment, one of the reporters has since been identified as New York Times reporter Ali Watkins, whom had a three-year romantic relationship with Wolfe, though Watkins maintains Wolfe never gave her classified information.
Prosecutor Ingersoll said Thursday the government will turn over the “overwhelming bulk” of discovery to Wolfe’s attorneys by Monday, most of which constitutes materials seized from his property. Wolfe is set to appear in court again on August 23 for a status conference.