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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Judge sets trial date in March for Trump’s federal election case

Former President Donald Trump arrives at the airport in Atlanta, en route to his booking at the Fulton County Jail, on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023. The federal judge overseeing Trump’s prosecution on charges of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election set a trial date on Monday, Aug. 28, 2023, for March 4, 2024.

By Alan Feuer and Glenn Thrush

A federal judge earlier this week set a trial date of March 4 in the prosecution of former President Donald Trump on charges of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election, rebuffing Trump’s proposal to push it off until 2026.

The decision by Judge Tanya Chutkan to start the trial March 4 amounted to an early victory for prosecutors, who had asked for Jan. 2. But it potentially brought the proceeding into conflict with the three other trials Trump is facing, underscoring the extraordinary complexities of his legal situation and the intersection of the prosecutions with his campaign to return to the White House.

The district attorney in Fulton County, Georgia, has proposed taking Trump to trial on charges of tampering with the election in that state on March 4 as well. Another case, in New York City, in which Trump has been accused of more than 30 felonies connected to hush-money payments to a porn actor in the run-up the 2016 election, has been scheduled to go to trial March 25.

And if the trial in Washington lasts more than 11 weeks, it could bump up against Trump’s other federal trial, on charges of illegally retaining classified documents after he left office and obstructing the government’s efforts to retrieve them. That trial is scheduled to begin in Florida in late May.

The March 4 date set by Chutkan for the federal election case at a hearing in U.S. District Court in Washington is the day before Super Tuesday, when 15 states are scheduled to hold Republican primaries or caucuses.

Chutkan said that while she understood Trump had both other trial dates scheduled next year and, at the same time, was running for the country’s highest office, she was not going to let the intersection of his legal troubles and his political campaign get in the way of setting a date.

“Mr. Trump, like any defendant, will have to make the trial date work regardless of his schedule,” Chutkan said, adding that “there is a societal interest to a speedy trial.”

While Chutkan noted that she had spoken to the judge in the New York case, it remained unclear how the judges, prosecutors and defense teams would address the problem of scheduling four criminal trials next year as Trump is campaigning.

Hammering home the complexities, Chutkan’s decision came the same day that Mark Meadows, Trump’s former chief of staff and a co-defendant in the Georgia indictment, testified in his bid to move his case to federal court, a step that could slow down at least some of the proceedings there.

Before a federal judge in Atlanta, Meadows argued that his actions in the indictment fell within the scope of his duties as chief of staff, even while saying often that he could not recall details of events in late 2020 and early 2021. He is one of several defendants trying to move the case; any ruling on the issue could apply to all 19 defendants.

After Chutkan’s decision in Washington, Trump said in a social media post that he would appeal, though it was not clear what grounds he would be able to cite, given that scheduling decisions are not generally subject to challenges to higher courts before a conviction is returned.

The former president has made no secret in conversations with his aides that he would like to solve his uniquely complicated legal woes by winning the election. If either of his two federal trials is delayed until after the race and Trump prevails, he could seek to pardon himself after taking office or have his attorney general dismiss the matters altogether.

In remarks from the bench, Chutkan, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, dismissed arguments made by Trump’s lawyers that they needed until April 2026 to prepare for the trial given the voluminous amount of discovery they will have to sort through. That extended period, the judge said, was “far beyond what is necessary” to prepare even for a trial of this magnitude.

As part of the hearing Monday, John Lauro, a lawyer for Trump, previewed some of his defense case, identifying several motions that he and his colleague, Todd Blanche, planned to file on Trump’s behalf.

Lauro said he could file a motion as soon as next week arguing that Trump was immune to the charges, given that the indictment against him covers a period when he served as the nation’s commander in chief.

Lauro also said he was considering attacking the charges with a selective prosecution motion. That motion, he said, would argue that Trump’s election interference indictment — brought by a special counsel appointed by the Biden administration — had been filed at least in part as retaliation for the federal investigation of Hunter Biden, President Joe Biden’s son, which began in earnest during the Trump administration.

Moreover, Lauro told Chutkan that he was planning to challenge each of the three conspiracy counts in the indictment brought against Trump early this month by the office of the special counsel, Jack Smith. Those counts accuse Trump of plotting to defraud the United States, to disrupt the certification of the election at a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, and to deprive people of the right to have their vote counted.

“In our view, this is a political prosecution,” Lauro said.

Still, the issues surrounding the schedule of the trial took center stage at the 90-minute hearing, which Smith attended.

Prosecutors working for Smith have said in court papers that the government could take four to six weeks to present its case to the judge, with Trump’s lawyers estimating a roughly similar amount of time.

That timetable would push the trial well past the March 25 date that Justice Juan Manuel Merchan has set for the New York trial and could edge close to or even beyond the May 20 date set for Trump’s federal trial in Florida.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg signaled recently that he would be open to seeing the trial date for the New York case moved, provided Merchan agreed.

Lucian Chalfen, a spokesperson for the New York court system, said in a statement: “Justice Merchan and Judge Chutkan spoke last Thursday regarding their respective upcoming trials. At this time, there is nothing further to impart regarding the People of the State of New York v. Donald J. Trump.”

A spokesperson for Bragg declined to comment, as did a spokesperson for Fani Willis, the district attorney in Fulton County, Georgia.

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