At her first appearance in the criminal case against Donald Trump for his alleged attempt to overturn the 2020 election, U.S. District Court Judge Tanya S. Chutkan repeatedly warned the former president’s lawyers that politics would not be tolerated in her courtroom.
But even as she warns Trump about his “inflammatory” language, Chutkan has routinely issued politically charged rulings and made incendiary statements of her own while presiding over some 30 cases involving Trump supporters charged in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, melee at the U.S. Capitol.
These include her public assertions that the 2020 election was beyond reproach, that the Jan. 6 protests were orchestrated by Trump, and that the former president is guilty of crimes. She has described Jan. 6 as a “mob attack” on “the very foundation of our democracy.” Chutkan’s strident language raises questions about her impartiality in handling the case against the presumptive GOP nominee for president in 2024.
Chutkan blamed Trump for the Jan. 6 violence while sentencing Robert Palmer, who pleaded guilty in June 2021 to one count of assaulting police officers with a dangerous weapon (a fire extinguisher). In that case, Palmer’s lawyer sought a reduced prison sentence by echoing the judge’s view of Trump.
“Mr. Palmer went to the Capitol at the behest of the former president,” attorney Bjorn E. Brunvand wrote in a December 2021 sentencing memo to Chutkan. “Like many others who participated in the Capitol riot, Mr. Palmer blindly followed the many figures who falsely but persistently claimed that the election had been stolen from the president.”
Palmer apologized to Chutkan for his conduct and begged for mercy. His plea fell on deaf ears. Chutkan expressed no sympathy for Palmer, whom she sent to prison for more than five years.
Chutkan’s references to the former president aren’t the only area of concern for Trump. Her comments from the bench also suggest that she shares the same view of Jan. 6 as the man prosecuting Trump in her courtroom, special counsel Jack Smith.
Tasked by Attorney General Merrick Garland with investigating “whether any person or entity unlawfully interfered with the transfer of power following the 2020 presidential election or the certification of the Electoral College vote held on or about January 6, 2021,” Smith indicted Trump in the District of Columbia on three conspiracy counts and one obstruction count last month. Throughout the 45-page indictment, Smith repeatedly accused Trump of knowingly promoting falsehoods about the 2020 presidential election.
Chutkan clearly shares that view. On numerous occasions, the judge has insisted the 2020 election was legitimate and fully vetted by the court system—a claim disputed by Trump that lies at the heart of the case she is now hearing.
She has accused individuals who believe the 2020 election was “stolen” as promoting “conspiracy theories.” In the case of Donna Bissel, who pleaded guilty to the nonviolent petty offense of “parading” in the Capitol, Chutkan cited Bissel’s personal beliefs as reason to sentence her to 14 days in jail rather than impose the three-year probation sentence recommended by prosecutors.
Court records show that Chutkan has repeatedly scolded defendants who question the integrity of the 2020 election—skepticism shared by 39% of Americans, according to a recent CNN poll. Here are a few examples of Chutkan’s comments regarding Jan. 6:
- USA v. Scott Ponder: “When you say you got caught up, Mr. Ponder, there’s a lot of rage and a lot of emotion and a lot of tension as you describe, and people felt very strongly, right or wrongly, that an election had been stolen. I think the evidence is quite clear that it had not, but that’s neither here nor there.” (July 26, 2022)
- USA v. Benjamin Larocca: “Everyone standing around with their cameras on that—in front of those doors, every single one of those people contributed to the mob that tried to intimidate those police officers; that tried to gain entry into that building; that were trying to stop the transfer of power and nullify a lawfully conducted election. This was a lawfully conducted election.”(Aug. 10, 2022)
- USA v. Christian Cortez: “[He] was motivated to come because his candidate didn’t win and he somehow believed this election was stolen and he wanted to get it back. As I said, this wasn’t just a protest. He wanted to—that mob wanted to overthrow the government. They wanted to undo the results of what they considered a stolen election; their guy didn’t win.” (Aug. 31, 2022)
A former public defender in Washington, D.C.—one of the country’s most perennially violent cities, and one generally lenient toward criminals—Chutkan argues that Jan. 6 is among the worst crime scenes she’s ever witnessed.
Many observers believe Trump already confronts a nearly insurmountable task in receiving a fair trial in the nation’s capital, a city that voted 92% for Joe Biden. Further, the Justice Department has a near-perfect conviction rate in Jan. 6 trials. Chutkan’s extensive record of comments suggests that the judge presiding over his case will not make it any easier.
This article was adapted from a RealClearInvestigations article published Aug. 23.
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