Judge to decide timing of trial over classified Trump documents


A federal judge in Florida will hold a hearing Friday to choose a new date for former President Donald J. Trump’s trial on charges of mishandling classified documents, a move that will likely have major consequences for his legal and political future.

Judge Aileen M. Cannon has already indicated she is inclined to make some “reasonable adjustments” to the trial schedule, which at least for the time being will begin on May 20 in U.S. District Court in Fort Pierce. , Florida. Several decisions Judge Cannon has made in recent months about the pace of the case have made it nearly impossible for the trial to begin as scheduled.

What remains to be seen is how long Judge Cannon will end up imposing.

On Thursday night, Trump’s lawyers and prosecutors in special counsel Jack Smith’s office sent Judge Cannon their proposals for when the trial should begin.

Smith’s legal team, sticking to its long-standing position of trying to hold the trial before Election Day, requested a July 8 date. But after months of trying to delay the trial until next year, Trump’s lawyers suddenly backed down. and suggested a date of August 12.

The hearing before Judge Cannon, who was appointed to the bench by Trump in his final days in office, comes just days after a Supreme Court decision that raised the possibility that the former president will not face trial sooner. . On Election Day, he faces another federal case, in which he is accused of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election.

The justices agreed to decide whether Trump is immune from prosecution on election interference charges, scheduling arguments for late April and keeping proceedings in the lower court frozen until they resolve the matter. In practice, the Supreme Court’s decision to take up the case meant that the electoral trial was unlikely to begin before September, in the midst of the general election campaign.

Judge Cannon’s decision on whether to choose a July date, an August date or later in the documents case could also have an effect on the timing of the election case. Trump is expected to attend the hearing on Friday.

It was unclear why Trump’s legal team said it would be open until August after long trying to postpone the trial until next year. But one possibility was that the lawyers, by proposing to spend much of the late summer and early fall in court over the classified documents case, were seeking to reduce the chances that there would be time for the election case to go to trial before the election day.

Just a few months ago, it looked like Trump would spend much of 2024 in front of a jury, defending himself against four separate criminal charges in four different cities.

Right now, however, only one of his criminal trials has a solid start date. Last month, a Manhattan state judge chose March 25 to begin his trial on charges of arranging hush payments to a porn star in an effort to avoid a scandal on the eve of the 2016 election.

Trump’s fourth criminal case, in which he is accused of altering the election results in Georgia, has not yet been set for trial. There is currently confusion as a Fulton County judge considers whether to disqualify Fani T. Willis, the district attorney who brought the charge, from the case over allegations of financial misconduct surrounding a romantic relationship she had with one of her deputies.

Judge Aileen Cannon could delay the trial until after the election.Credit…Southern District of Florida

The hearing in Florida, which is scheduled to last most of Friday, will address more than scheduling issues.

Judge Cannon has asked the defense and prosecution to be prepared to discuss Trump’s unusually broad and highly politicized motion for additional discovery, which was filed in January. In the motion, the former president’s lawyers suggested that, as part of their defense at trial, they intended to argue that federal officials, including those in the intelligence community, were “politically motivated and biased” against Trump.

The parties will also debate an effort by Mr. Smith to keep under wraps the names of about two dozen potential witnesses who could testify at the trial.

Judge Cannon briefly granted a request by Trump’s lawyers to include the names of the witnesses in a public record before the court. But she put that decision on hold after Smith accused her of making a “clear mistake” and said witnesses could face threats or harassment if their identities were revealed.

Even amid the discussion about these other issues, the question of timing of the trial was arguably of paramount importance.

If Judge Cannon were to postpone the proceedings until next year, she would likely face a wave of criticism. It may also prompt Mr. Smith’s first appeal since the indictment was issued in June, although rulings involving scheduling issues are generally not subject to challenge in higher courts.

When Judge Cannon was randomly assigned to the case last spring, she was already under fire for issuing a ruling in an early part of the investigation that was favorable to Trump but so legally questionable that an appeals court severely rebuked her by overturning it. .

After the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private club and Florida residence, for classified documents in August 2022, Judge Cannon appointed an independent arbitrator to determine whether any of the materials collected by the agents was privileged and should be confidential. out of reach of researchers.

But he accompanied that relatively typical decision with another that was almost unprecedented, effectively freezing the government’s investigation into Trump until the arbitrator, known as a special master, completed his work.

Prosecutors were outraged by the move, accusing Judge Cannon of not only lacking the power to get involved in the case in such an extreme way, but also of treating Trump differently than a normal criminal defendant.

A federal appeals court in Atlanta ultimately agreed, unanimously overturning its decision and noting that it appeared to have granted “a special exception” for Trump in defiance of “our nation’s fundamental principle that our law applies to everyone.”

Still, in some of her most recent rulings, Judge Cannon has shown herself willing to oppose Trump.

On Wednesday, for example, he denied a highly unusual request from his lawyers to gain access to a secret government document that detailed a trove of classified discovery evidence that prosecutors said was neither useful nor relevant to his defense.

Had Judge Cannon allowed the request, legal experts said, it would have fallen far outside the normal procedures laid out in the Classified Proceedings Act, the federal law that governs the use of classified materials in public trials.

But even when ruling against Trump, Judge Cannon seemed to suggest that he was different from most criminal defendants. He did not entirely agree with Mr. Smith’s position that the facts in this case did not “even remotely justify a departure from the normal process.”

“The court,” he wrote, “cannot speak with such confidence in this first criminal prosecution of a former president of the United States, who was once the country’s leading classification authority on many of the documents the special counsel now seeks. hide from him.”

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