Trump’s election conspiracy trial is off the calendar for now. New York is next

Trump’s election conspiracy trial is off the calendar for now. New York is next

On 4 March, Donald Trump was due to stand trial in a federal courthouse in Washington DC for criminal charges surrounding his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

But the date, roughly one month away, dropped off the court’s calendar this week, signalling what had long been anticipated and what federal prosecutors have warned judges would happen: the former president’s attempts to evade criminal prosecution by claiming “presidential immunity” have thrown the schedule off track.

It was all but expected. After Mr Trump’s “immunity” defence was shot down by the federal judge overseeing his case, his appeal has effectively ground proceedings to a halt for the last two months.

On Friday afternoon, the judge overseeing his case made it official: his federal election conspiracy trial date is no more, and the court will set a new one at another time.

A forthcoming appeals court decision on whether Mr Trump can claim “immunity” for crimes allegedly committed while in office will likely be appealed by either Mr Trump or special prosecutor Jack Smith up to the US Supreme Court, depending which way the court rules. Another appeal will further delay proceedings in an election year where the Republican Party’s potential nominee for president is facing the prospect of sitting in four courtrooms to face 91 criminal charges.

That window for opinions from the Washington DC-based appeals court came to a close on Friday morning.

Without the federal election conspiracy case kicking off in March, the next date on Mr Trump’s calendar of criminal trials could see him return to New York – where he has already faced two civil trials within the last several months.

Nearly one year ago, a grand jury in Manhattan criminally charged Mr Trump with falsifying business records to cover up hush money payments made to adult film star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 election.

That trial is penciled in for 25 March, though the court in downtown Manhattan has deferred its scheduling to the election conspiracy case. New York Judge Juan Merchan is likely to determine the court’s next move during a pretrial conference on 15 February.

US District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is assigned Mr Trump’s election interference case, has another trial scheduled to begin on 2 April, which would have been in the middle of Mr Trump’s trial. During a hearing this week in an unrelated case, she told the court that she suspects she won’t have any trial dates on her March calendar.

In court filings, Mr Trump’s attorneys have claimed that Mr Smith’s office “never explains” why prosecutors want to adhere to the 4 March trial date, which Mr Trump’s attorneys said has “no talismanic significance”.

Federal prosecutors have hinted at the why between the lines of motions and arguments to the judge. The longer the delays, the more likely the case will extend well past 2024, creating an uncomfortable and unprecedented prospect of a president-elect or a sitting president being on trial. And should Mr Trump win the election, he could order the US Department of Justice to shut his case down altogether.

Mr Smith told the Supreme Court last year that the “immunity” question requires a “timely resolution to move forward on a case involving criminal charges “of the utmost gravity”.

“This case involves – for the first time in our nation’s history – criminal charges against a former president based on his actions while in office,” lawyers with Mr Smith’s office wrote.

“[Mr Trump] stands accused of serious crimes because the grand jury followed the facts and applied the law,” they added. “The government seeks this court’s resolution of the immunity claim so that those charges may be promptly resolved, whatever the result.”

A federal investigation into Mr Trump’s actions surrounding the 2020 election, including a multi-state scheme to reverse results in state’s he lost, resulted in last year’s grand jury indictment charging him with conspiracy and obstruction.

Prosecutors argue then-president Trump relied on knowingly false claims about the election to pressure state officials to approve fraudulent slates of electors to obstruct the certification of the results, then attempted to persuade his then-vice president Mike Pence to refuse the outcome, and, ultimately, failed to stop a mob of his supporters from breaking into the US Capitol to do it by force.

On 1 December, the federal judge overseeing the case swatted down his “immunity” defence and ruled that Mr Trump’s one term in office did not bestow on him “the divine right of kings” to evade criminal accountability.

Donald Trump leaves his civil fraud trial on 11 January in New York (AFP via Getty Images)
Donald Trump leaves his civil fraud trial on 11 January in New York (AFP via Getty Images)

“The United States has only one Chief Executive at a time, and that position does not confer a lifelong ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ pass,’”Judge Chutkan wrote. “A former President’s exposure to federal criminal liability is essential to fulfilling our constitutional promise of equal justice under the law.”

Mr Trump appealed that decision, and his legal team argued in front of a three-judge panel earlier this month to reverse Judge Chutkan’s ruling.

Appeals court Judge Florence Henderson, who was appointed by Republican president George W Bush, argued that “it’s paradoxical to say that his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed allows him to violate criminal law”.

It is unclear when the appeals court will issue a ruling, which will almost certainly be appealed by either party, depending on which way the court rules.

If the appeals judges dismiss Mr Trump’s claims, his attorneys could request a re-hearing with a full panel of appellate judges or take the case to the Supreme Court.

The justices there are already scheduled to consider another major constitutional question involving his attempts to subvert the 2020 election.

On 8 February, justices will hear oral arguments in a case that will determine whether he can be disqualified from public office under the scope of the 14th Amendment, which prohibits anyone who has sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution and “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” from holding public office.