Judge in Trump Federal Election Case Scraps Trial’s Start Date
The federal judge overseeing former President Donald J. Trump’s prosecution on charges of plotting to overturn the 2020 election issued an order on Friday scrapping the March 4 trial date for the case.
The order by Judge Tanya S. Chutkan was a formal confirmation of what had seemed fairly obvious for weeks. It came after she had made a series of hints that she was going to delay the trial as Mr. Trump pursues an effort to have the underlying charges tossed out with an argument that he enjoys complete immunity from prosecution.
In her order, Judge Chutkan said that she would set a new date for the proceeding in Federal District Court in Washington “if and when” Mr. Trump’s immunity claims are resolved.
The immunity claims are now in front of a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which has been mulling the issue since oral arguments were heard on Jan. 9. The panel, which expressed skepticism about Mr. Trump’s position, has yet to return a decision after setting an extremely aggressive schedule for briefings to be filed.
Judge Chutkan’s decision to delay the trial was the latest twist in an ongoing and often bitter struggle between Mr. Trump’s lawyers and prosecutors working for the special counsel, Jack Smith, over the timing of the proceeding.
Mr. Trump’s legal team has used every lever at its disposal to push the start of the trial until after this fall’s election is decided.
If that were to happen and Mr. Trump were to win the race, he could order his attorney general to simply dismiss the charges. And even if the indictment were left in place, the proceedings against him could be frozen for as long as he is in office, under a longstanding Justice Department policy against prosecuting a sitting president.
Prosecutors have never explicitly said they want to hold the trial before the election in order to avoid such potential consequences. Instead, they have framed their efforts to move the case quickly toward trial as a nod toward the enormous public interest in seeing the former president’s case resolved in a speedy fashion.
Still, they have gone to great lengths to keep the process moving forward — at one point making an unusual request to the Supreme Court to step ahead of the appeals court and decide the immunity issue itself on an expedited basis.
The appellate process started in December after Judge Chutkan rejected a sweeping effort by Mr. Trump’s lawyers to have the election subversion case dismissed because the charges arose out of actions Mr. Trump took while in the White House. After the former president asked the appeals court to step in and reverse Judge Chutkan’s ruling, she put all of the proceedings in the underlying case on hold until the issue was settled.
The decision to strike the March 4 date means that Mr. Trump’s trial on state charges in New York of helping to arrange hush payments to a porn star in the run-up to the 2016 election may now become the first of the former president’s four criminal cases to go in front of a jury.
That trial, which is scheduled to start in Manhattan on March 25, has been slowly moving forward. The Manhattan district attorney’s office has begun to approach witnesses to prepare them for the proceeding, including Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former fixer.
Still, it is not entirely certain that the hush money trial in New York will start before the election subversion trial in Washington. Justice Juan M. Merchan, who is overseeing the hush money case, has set a hearing for Feb. 15 to determine the timing of his trial.
But if Mr. Trump’s appeal of the immunity issue is resolved quickly and Judge Chutkan sets a new trial date in Washington for late April or early May, it is possible that Justice Merchan could step aside and let the election subversion case go first.
The Supreme Court is likely to play the decisive role in determining the timing of both trials, assuming that either the defense or the prosecution ask it to review the appeals court’s eventual ruling on immunity.
If the justices decline to hear the case and let the appeals court ruling stand, the matter will immediately return to Judge Chutkan, who has shown an inclination to move quickly.
If the justices take the appeal and hear and decide it on an expedited basis, the election case could go to trial this summer. But if the court pursues a leisurely pace in considering the question of immunity, Judge Chutkan might not be able to schedule it before Election Day, especially given the complexities of putting Mr. Trump on trial in the heat of the general election season.