Judge in Trump documents case sets provisional hearing date in August

The federal judge, who is leading the prosecution of former President Donald Trump over confidential documents, set an aggressive timeline on Tuesday, ordering a trial to begin as early as August 14.

While the timeline set by Judge Aileen Cannon is likely to be delayed by extensive pre-trial litigation, including over handling classified material, its brisk pace suggests she wants to avoid criticism of delays or slow processing.

Cannon, a relatively inexperienced lawyer appointed by Trump, is watching the first moves particularly closely. Last year, she disrupted the document investigation with several rulings that fell in favor of the former president before a conservative appeals court overturned them on the grounds that she never had the legitimate legal authority to intervene.

Brandon L. Van Grack, a former federal prosecutor who has worked on complex national security-related criminal cases, said the trial date is “unlikely” considering the process of turning classified evidence over to the defense for disclosure has not yet begun started. Still, he said, Cannon seems to be showing that she wants to do everything in her power to get the case to court quickly.

“It signals that the court is at least trying to do everything in its power to move the case forward and that it’s important that the case move forward quickly,” Van Grack said. “While it’s unlikely to last, it’s at least a positive signal — positive in the sense that all parties and the public should want this case to move forward as quickly as possible.”

However, it is not clear whether the defense wants a speedy procedure in the proceedings. Trump’s strategy in legal matters has long been to delay them, and the federal case against him is likely to be no exception. Should a trial drag on beyond the 2024 election and Trump wins the race, he could theoretically try to pardon himself — or he could order his attorney general to drop the charges and drop the case.

Speaking publicly after charges were filed against Trump and one of his associates, Walt Nauta, in US District Court in Miami two weeks ago, Special Counsel Jack Smith, who oversaw the investigation, said he wanted a speedy trial.

The timeline Cannon laid out in her order Tuesday clearly meets that, requiring all pre-trial motions to be filed by July 24.

She also ruled that the trial — and all hearings in this case — will be held at her home court in Fort Pierce, Florida, a small town in the northern part of the Southern District of Florida. Trump’s indictment took place in federal court in Miami.

It is highly unlikely that the pre-trial in the case will be completed by August. Legal experts have identified a number of complicated issues that Cannon, the defense and the prosecution must resolve before the matter can be brought before a jury.

For one, Trump’s attorneys, under orders from Cannon, just last week began obtaining the necessary security clearances to handle the important classified evidence in the case. The background check process to obtain the permits can take months.

Trump’s legal team is also still changing. Nauta’s attorney, Stanley Woodward, is still interviewing Florida attorneys to assist him on the case. He assumes someone will be on site when Nauta is charged next week.

Aside from the numerous legal tactics Trump’s lawyers may use to challenge the merits of the allegations against him, the case also involves the parties in an extensive closed-door litigation over how the allegations are handled to deal with secret evidence that is the focus of government prosecutions. Trump has been accused of illegally storing 31 individual national defense documents, many of which were classified as top secret.

Much of the classified litigation will take place under the auspices of the Classified Information Procedures Act. If the government disagrees with any of Cannon’s rulings related to the law, it can stay the pretrial and appeal to the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. (The defense would have to wait until after a conviction to appeal a question of evidence under the law.)

Trump’s lawyers are expected to file a number of pre-trial motions, including one alleging he faces selective prosecution, while filing none against other officials investigated for misappropriation of classified materials, most notably Hillary Clinton charge was brought.

The former president’s legal team can also file motions alleging prosecutors of various types of wrongdoing or seeking the suppression of audio recordings of one of his attorneys, obtained by the government prior to indictment, that were filed by breaching the traditional protections of attorney-client privilege.

Depending on how seriously Cannon takes the allegations made in those filings, she could order additional briefs, certifications and hearings, further slowing the process.

The preliminary court calendar underscores how Trump’s decision to advance his political campaign, which is now a key part of his defense, could impact the broader presidential primary race. The first Republican debate is scheduled for August 23 in Milwaukee. Trump has not said if he will attend and has indicated he may skip the first two debates.

The second debate is scheduled for September and is expected to take place every month until the end of the year. Depending on the court calendar, Trump’s political plans could again coincide with court dates.

Moreover, this is not the only court case against Trump. His trial in a New York state court in Manhattan on charges of paying hush money to a porn actor during the 2016 presidential campaign is scheduled to begin in March. A second defamation trial against a New York writer who claimed Trump raped her decades ago is set to begin in January.

The former president also faces at least one other charge. Prosecutors in Fulton County, Georgia could file charges related to his efforts to remain in office. Smith, the special counsel, also continues to investigate issues related to Trump’s efforts to stay in power after losing the 2020 election.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Justin Scaccy

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