The federal judge presiding over the impeachment of former President Donald J. Trump in the confidential documents case set an aggressive schedule Tuesday, ordering the trial to begin on Aug. 14.
While the timeline set by the judge, Aileen M. Cannon, is likely to be delayed due to extensive preliminary litigation, including over how to handle confidential material, its brisk pace suggests that the judge is trying to avoid any criticism for having dragged his feet or to slow down the proceedings.
The first moves of Judge Cannon, a relatively inexperienced Trump-appointed jurist, are being watched with particular attention. He halted the investigation into the documents last year with several rulings favoring the former president before a conservative appeals court overturned it, saying he never had legitimate legal authority to intervene.
Brandon L. Van Grack, a former federal prosecutor who has worked on complex criminal matters involving national security, said the trial date was « unlikely » considering the process of turning over classified evidence to the defense had not yet begun. However, he said, Judge Cannon appeared to demonstrate that he intended to do what he could to bring the case quickly to trial.
« It signals that the court is at least trying to do everything it can to move the case forward and that it’s important that the case moves forward quickly, » Van Grack said. « While it’s unlikely to hold up, it’s at least a positive sign – positive in the sense that all parties and the public should want this case to move forward as quickly as possible. »
But it’s unclear whether the defense wants the case to move forward quickly. Mr. Trump’s legal strategy has long been to delay them, and the federal case against him is unlikely to be an exception. If a trial drags on beyond the 2024 election and Mr. Trump wins the race, he could in theory try to pardon himself, or he could order his attorney general to drop the charges and drop the case.
In public statements after the indictment against Trump and one of his aides, Walt Nauta, was filed two weeks ago in federal district court in Miami, Special Counsel, Jack Smith, who oversaw the investigation, said he would a quick process.
The schedule that Judge Cannon set forth in his ruling on Tuesday clearly does this, requiring all preliminary motions to be filed by July 24.
He also ruled that the trial — and all hearings in the case — will be held in his home court in Fort Pierce, Florida, a small city in the northern part of the Southern District of Florida. Mr. Trump’s arraignment was held in federal court in Miami.
Preliminary proceedings in the case are highly unlikely to conclude by August. Legal experts have identified a number of tricky issues that Judge Cannon, the defense and the prosecution will need to resolve before the matter is ready to be brought before a jury.
First, following Judge Cannon’s orders, Trump’s attorneys began the process of obtaining the necessary security clearances to address the significant classified evidence issues in the case just last week. The background check process to get permissions can take months.
Trump’s legal team is also still in flux. Mr. Nauta’s attorney, Stanley Woodward Jr., is still interviewing Florida-based attorneys to assist him in the case. He expects to have someone in his place when Mr. Nauta is arraigned next week.
Beyond the range of legal tactics Trump’s lawyers could use to challenge the merits of the allegations against him, the parties to the case will also have to engage in significant behind-closed-door litigation over how to handle the classified evidence at the heart of the government indictment. Mr. Trump has been accused of illegally withholding 31 individual national defense documents, many of which are marked top secret.
Much of the secret litigation will take place under the auspices of the Classified Information Procedures Act. If the government disagrees with any of Judge Cannon’s decisions involving the act, it can stay the preliminary proceedings and appeal to the Court of Justice. U.S. Appeal for the 11th Circuit, Atlanta. (The defense would have to wait until after any conviction to appeal an evidentiary issue under the act.)
Trump’s lawyers are expected to file a series of pre-trial motions, including one alleging that he was selectively prosecuted while other public officials under investigation for mishandling of classified material — foremost among them, Hillary Clinton — have not been charged.
The former president’s legal team may also file motions accusing prosecutors of various types of misconduct or seeking to suppress audio memos from one of his lawyers, which the government obtained prior to the prosecution and which was filed in violation of traditional professional secrecy protections.
Depending on how seriously Judge Cannon takes the claims made in those documents, he may order additional briefs, attestations, and hearings, further slowing the process.
The Preliminary Court timetable underscores how Trump’s decision to press ahead with his political campaign, now a key part of his defense, could affect the broader presidential primary race. The first Republican primary debate is scheduled for August 23 in Milwaukee. Mr Trump did not say whether he will attend and signaled he could miss the first two presidential debates.
The second debate is scheduled for September and it is expected that there will be one debate a month until the end of the year. Depending on the court calendar, Trump’s political plans could once again coincide with the court dates.
Furthermore, this is not Mr. Trump’s only prosecution. His trial in Manhattan state court on charges arising from paying undisclosed sums of money to a porn actress during her 2016 election campaign will begin in March. A second libel trial brought by a New York writer who claimed Mr. Trump raped her decades ago is set to begin in January.
Mr. Trump is also facing the prospect of at least one other indictment. Prosecutors in Fulton County, Georgia, may file charges in connection with his efforts to stay in office. Mr. Smith, the special counsel, is also still probing issues related to Mr. Trump’s efforts to hang on to power after losing the 2020 election.