What’s Next in the Federal Election Case Against Trump?
The ruling on Tuesday by a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Washington rejecting former President Donald J. Trump’s claims of immunity against charges of plotting to overturn the 2020 election was a significant defeat for Mr. Trump. And it was a win for Jack Smith, the special counsel, who has been trying to keep the case moving along at a pace that would allow it to go to trial well before Election Day.
But what happens next will have a substantial impact on the pressing question of when Mr. Trump will face a jury in the case. And that answer could, in turn, go a long way in determining the timing of the other three criminal prosecutions brought against him.
Here is a look at how things could play out.
Which court will Trump appeal to now?
While a spokesman for Mr. Trump’s campaign confirmed that he intended to challenge the appeals court panel’s decision, it remains unclear whether he will ask the Supreme Court to hear the case directly or take an intermediate step and first ask the full appeals court to consider it.
Normally, asking for review by the full appeals court would be a step that would eat up additional time and help to delay the start of a trial — a strategy that Mr. Trump has pursued from the very beginning of the election interference case.
But in its ruling, the three-judge panel of the court included a provision that seemed designed to speed things up and encourage Mr. Trump to take his immunity challenge directly to the Supreme Court.
The panel said that Mr. Trump had until Monday to ask the Supreme Court to get involved in the case and continue a stay of all of the underlying proceedings. The case was initially put on hold by the trial judge in December.
While taking that route would deprive the former president of any extra days that could have been spent on seeking review from the full appeals court, it would have the countervailing advantage of probably keeping the underlying case frozen as the justices worked. It requires five of the court’s nine justices to issue a stay.
The panel said that if Mr. Trump went ahead and asked the full appeals court to hear the issue first, the case would be sent back on Monday to the trial judge, Tanya S. Chutkan, who could quickly lift the pause. And that would mean that all of the hearings and filing deadlines that are now on hold would start up again.
Why is the pause in the underlying case important?
Whether or not the underlying case remains frozen in place will have a direct effect on when it will go to trial. Just last week, Judge Chutkan, who is overseeing the case in Federal District Court in Washington, scrapped her initial trial date of March 4, bowing to the reality that time had run out to get the proceeding underway by then.
In recent court papers, Judge Chutkan said that, in the interest of fairness, she did not want Mr. Trump and his lawyers to be penalized by the pause in the case. She suggested that for every day of trial preparation they lost to the freeze, she would push the trial back by an equal number of days.
What happens if Trump appeals to the Supreme Court?
The first decision facing the justices would be whether or not to hear the case at all. If they declined to hear it and simply allowed the appeals court’s ruling to stand, the case could be sent back to Judge Chutkan as early as a few weeks from now.
By that point, the case would have been on hold for about two months. And if Judge Chutkan keeps to her suggestion of ensuring that Mr. Trump’s lawyers do not lose any trial preparation time because of the freeze, it could in theory mean a new trial date of sometime in early May.
If, however, the Supreme Court does decide to hear the immunity issue, the next important question will be how quickly they proceed in scheduling arguments and issuing a decision. Without an expedited schedule, their ruling might not come until the end of the term, in late June or early July.
If they expedite the appeal and rule against Mr. Trump this spring, it could be possible to hold a trial in the summer before the general election in November. But that would entail certain complications, like the proceeding taking place either near or during the Republican Party’s nominating convention in Milwaukee, which Mr. Trump will surely attend.
It would also mean that, because of his obligations to be present in the courtroom, Mr. Trump might not be able to keep a normal campaign schedule.
But if the justices take their time in deciding the appeal, it will be difficult for the trial to start before the fall, in the homestretch of the campaign, increasing the odds that it would have to be delayed until after the election. If that were to happen and Mr. Trump were to win, he would be in a position to ask his Justice Department to dismiss the case or even seek to pardon himself.
The odds of the court ruling in Mr. Trump’s favor on the immunity issue appear to be extremely slim. But if that were to happen, the case would be dismissed, with no trial taking place at all.