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Trump’s 2020 Trial Is Set to Dominate the 2024 Primary Season

If there were any remaining doubt that the 2024 election is going to be a political contest like no other, it was removed on Monday, when a federal judge set a trial date for Donald Trump’s case involving charges of conspiring to overturn the result of the 2020 election: March 4, 2024. During a hearing at the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan rejected pleas by Trump’s lawyers to delay the trial until after the election. “Setting a trial date does not depend and should not depend on the defendant’s personal or professional obligations,” Judge Chutkan said. “Mr. Trump, like any defendant, will have to make the trial date work regardless of his schedule.”

Government lawyers representing Jack Smith, the special counsel, had requested a trial date in January, 2024, arguing that the seriousness of the case demanded a prompt resolution. Molly Gaston, a Justice Department lawyer, told the court that the defendant stands “accused of historic crimes: attempting to overturn the Presidential election, disenfranchise millions of Americans, and disrupt the peaceful transfer of power.” Trump’s legal team, led by the attorney John Lauro, had asked for the case to be pushed back until 2026, so they could have sufficient time to examine all the evidence that prosecutors have gathered.

Later on Monday, Trump vowed to appeal Judge Chutkan’s ruling despite the fact that trial dates aren’t usually subject to appeal. If the case goes ahead on schedule, jury selection could begin the day before Super Tuesday, when more than a dozen states, including California, North Carolina, and Texas, are expected to hold Presidential primaries for both parties. (The final primary calendar is not yet set in stone.) In the week and a half prior to the trial date, Republican primaries and caucuses may well take place in Michigan, South Carolina, North Dakota and Idaho. Later in March, primaries are expected to take place in another ten states, including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, and Ohio.

It isn’t clear how long the trial will last, but it is likely to be quite lengthy: the Times reported that both sides have told the judge, in court papers, that they will need at least four weeks to present their cases. Federal trials aren’t usually televised, but, in any case, this one seems sure to generate round-the-clock media coverage. Among the potential witnesses are Mike Pence, Trump’s former Vice-President and his current rival in the Republican primary, and Mark Meadows, his former White House chief of staff. Whatever the outcome of the trial, it will be an extraordinary spectacle, and it seems certain to dominate the G.O.P. primary season.

At Monday’s hearing in Washington, it was clear that Judge Chutkan, a former public defender and corporate lawyer whom Barack Obama nominated to the federal bench in 2013, was determined to assert the primacy of the legal system over political scheduling and the delaying tactics of Trump’s team. “I take seriously the defense’s request that Mr. Trump be treated like any other defendant appearing before this court, and I intend to do so,” Chutkan said. But the judge, who has already handled a number of cases arising from the January 6, 2021, riot on Capitol Hill, also remarked that the request of Trump’s team to delay the trial until April, 2026, was “far beyond what is necessary,” and added that “the public has a right to a prompt and efficient resolution of this matter.”

Monday’s ruling raised questions about the scheduling of Trump’s other court cases. (He has pleaded not guilty in each instance.) Right now, Trump is also scheduled to go on trial in New York on March 25, 2024, on charges of falsifying business records connected to payoffs he made to the adult-film actress Stormy Daniels during the 2016 Presidential campaign. If Trump’s federal case goes ahead two weeks before then, it seems likely that his New York trial will be delayed. During Monday’s hearing, Judge Chutkan said that she had already been in contact with the judge handling that case.

The date of Trump’s trial in Fulton County, Georgia, is still up in the air. That case is a sprawling one that involves more than a dozen defendants, and questions have already been raised about how quickly it will move ahead. On Monday, Meadows made an appearance during a pretrial hearing that his lawyers had requested to try to get the case transferred to federal court. Then there is Trump’s second federal trial, on charges of mishandling classified information and obstructing justice after he left the Presidency, which will take place in Florida because that is where the alleged crimes took place. Last month, U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee, set a trial date of May 20, 2024. It wasn’t immediately clear, though, how Monday’s announcement may affect the timing of the documents case.

In a social-media message announcing his intention to appeal the March 4th trial date, Trump called Judge Chutkan a “Trump Hating Judge” and claimed “Election Interference!” So far, however, the indictments brought against him have only strengthened his position in the Republican primary, as his supporters have rallied behind him. The Real Clear Politics poll average, which aggregates recent polls, has him ahead of the G.O.P. field by forty points.

Of course, the general-election electorate is very different from the G.O.P. primary electorate. Recent surveys suggest that about half of Americans think that Trump should suspend his campaign, and slightly more than half think he should be prosecuted for attempting to overturn the 2020 election. This past week, the Republican senator Bill Cassidy, of Louisiana, who was one of seven G.O.P. senators who voted to impeach Trump in February, 2021, called on the former President to end his reëlection campaign, saying, “I don’t think Americans will vote for someone who’s been convicted.” This theory could well be tested next year. With the third anniversary of the 2020 election and its alarming aftermath only months away, the wheels of justice have been grinding very slowly. On Monday, Judge Chutkan sped them up. ♦

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