Trump Classified Documents Trial: Judge Makes No Immediate Decision on Timing

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A federal judge in Florida held a hearing on Friday to consider a new date for former President Donald J. Trump’s trial on charges of mishandling classified documents, but made no immediate decision about a choice that could have major consequences for both his legal and political future.

Four months ago, the judge, Aileen M. Cannon, declared she was inclined to make some “reasonable adjustments” to the timing of the classified documents trial, which was originally scheduled to start on May 20 in Federal District Court in Fort Pierce, Fla. But by holding off on making a decision at the hearing on Friday, Judge Cannon further delayed resolving the question of how long the trial would be postponed.

In all of Mr. Trump’s criminal cases, the issue of timing has been paramount in a way that is unusual for most prosecutions. He is facing four separate indictments in four different cities, and proceedings have to be scheduled in relation to each other and against the busy backdrop of his presidential campaign.

The daylong hearing in Fort Pierce reflected those intersecting complications as federal prosecutors and Mr. Trump’s lawyers sparred not only over the thorny legal issues involved in the case, but also over the separate complexities of taking Mr. Trump to trial as he runs for office and juggles his crowded legal calendar.

The former president attended the proceeding, appearing almost cheerful in a way that he has not during visits to other courtrooms. Jack Smith, the special counsel who has twice indicted Mr. Trump on federal charges, was also in attendance and the two men shot fleeting glances at one another, at one point appearing to lock eyes.

At Judge Cannon’s request, Mr. Trump’s lawyers and Mr. Smith’s prosecutors had sent her competing proposals about when the trial should begin on the night before the hearing was held.

The prosecutors, hewing to their long-held position of trying to conduct the trial before Election Day, had requested a date of July 8. But Mr. Trump’s legal team made an odd, double-barreled request, arguing that he could not get a fair trial until after the election but also suggesting a start date of Aug. 12, almost three months before voters would go to the polls.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers used a similar split-screen argument at the hearing itself, saying on the one hand that they could live with a trial date in August, but arguing on the other that trying Mr. Trump in the months before November was “completely unfair” to him and “the American people.”

At one point, one of the lawyers, Emil Bove, complained that Mr. Trump should not have been in court at all on Friday and should have been out campaigning in advance of primaries on Super Tuesday, neglecting to mention that his client was under no obligation to be in the courtroom. Judge Cannon cut him short, asking Mr. Bove to keep to legal issues.

Judge Cannon never really pressed Mr. Trump’s legal team on the tension between its proposal for a summer trial and its argument that a trial before November would amount to “election interference.”

But one of the prosecutors, Jay I. Bratt, referred to the defense’s proposed schedule as “fake dates” that were offered in “almost bad faith.” Mr. Bratt suggested that the defense’s true intention was to simply get a trial date on the books and then ask for further adjournments down the road.

Under questioning from Judge Cannon, Mr. Bratt, for the first time, publicly asserted that if a trial was conducted in September and October, the government would not be violating a Justice Department policy against holding proceedings too close to an election — a provision known as the “60-day rule.” He said that the policy forbade prosecutors from bringing new charges in the run-up to an election, but did not stop them from prosecuting an indictment that had already been filed.

On occasion during the hearing, Judge Cannon, who was appointed by Mr. Trump and has been on the bench for less than four years, seemed a bit uncomfortable with the arcane legal process for handling the highly classified materials at the heart of the case.

At one point, Mr. Bratt explained to her that the defense lawyers, in their proposed schedule, had unnecessarily requested a hearing to determine the “sufficiency” of a set of court papers they are poised to file that will detail the precise classified information they intend to present at trial.

“That’s not a thing,” he said.

At another point, Judge Cannon asked a second prosecutor, David Harbach, when the government intended to publish its list of trial witnesses. Generally, in high-profile or sensitive cases, witness lists are submitted under seal and remain out of view until a trial takes place.

Mr. Smith, in particular, seemed shocked by the question and sat up stiffly in the well of the courtroom, his eyes gone wide in apparent incredulity.

Even though the hearing was ostensibly held to discuss the issue of timing, it often veered into the viability of some of the unusual motions that Mr. Trump’s lawyers have filed. Chief among them was one that argued that the intelligence community and some top officials in the F.B.I., the Justice Department and the White House were members of the “prosecution team” — a designation that would permit Mr. Trump’s legal team to gain access to their communications as part of the discovery process.

The former president’s lawyers want to see that material to help them bolster a narrative that much of the Washington national security establishment was biased against Mr. Trump and helped in bringing the classified documents case against him. As part of their motion, the lawyers have also asked Judge Cannon to hold a hearing on the issue of whether the officials were part of the prosecution team — a move that would only take up more time.

The defense and prosecution also fought over an effort by Mr. Trump’s lawyers to include in some of their public filings the names of about two dozen witnesses in the cases. Mr. Smith’s team has vehemently opposed that effort, saying that if the witnesses’ identities were revealed they could face the same sort of threats and intimidation that participants in some of Mr. Trump’s other trials have faced.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers have never quite explained why they want to reveal the names of the witnesses, arguing that there is simply a presumption under the First Amendment that criminal trials should be as public as possible. That position was echoed by a lawyer representing a press coalition, which includes The New York Times.

Still Mr. Harbach, the prosecutor, scoffed at the idea that the former president was seeking to uphold the constitutional right to free expression.

“This is not about Donald Trump vindicating the First Amendment,” he said.

Judge Cannon gave no indication about when she intends to pick a new date for the trial, though at previous scheduling hearings she has issued an order with her decision within a few days. Her ultimate ruling will go a long way toward determining how many trials Mr. Trump will face before the election.

This week, for instance, the other case brought by Mr. Smith — in which Mr. Trump stands accused of plotting to overturn the 2020 election — was put in limbo by the Supreme Court. The court agreed to hear the former president’s claim to be immune from prosecution on the election interference charges and set a schedule for reviewing the question that made it all but certain that a trial cannot take place until September at the earliest.

Mr. Trump’s state election tampering case in Georgia has not been set for trial and is unlikely to face a jury until next year. The only one of the former president’s criminal cases to have a solid trial date in 2024 is the proceeding in Manhattan, where he has been charged with falsifying business records to arrange hush money to a porn star to avoid a scandal on the eve of the 2016 election. That trial is set to begin later this month.


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