OPINION: This article may contain commentary which reflects the author’s opinion.
Democrats are not happy that former President Donald Trump is reaping the benefits of trial delays as a federal appeals court is mulling the question of presidential immunity.
Over fifty days have passed since the indefinite suspension of Trump’s criminal proceedings in a trial court in Washington, D.C., stemming from allegations that he attempted to rig the 2020 election. They won’t start up again until the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and, probably, the Supreme Court settle the unanswered question looming over the whole case: whether Trump is exempt from prosecution because he was president.
The prolonged delays benefit Trump, whose strategy throughout his multiple trials has been to drag them out for as long as possible, even if those courts ultimately reject his immunity arguments, an outcome that most legal experts anticipate. Due to protracted delays in his federal criminal cases, Trump may be able to completely avoid the charges if he wins the presidency in November by asking the Justice Department to stop the prosecutions or even by asking for a pardon.
To move the federal election case against Trump along quickly, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan has scheduled the trial for March 4. Chutkan, however, has made it clear that she intends to move back the start date in order to account for every extra day that Trump’s immunity appeal causes.
“Even if the appeal were resolved this week against Trump, that calculation would put his earliest trial date in late April. But if the D.C. Circuit and the Supreme Court take additional weeks or months to deliver a final ruling, the opening days of Trump’s trial could be pushed to the summer or fall,” Politico reported.
“If, at that point, Trump retains his grip on the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, he and his allies are certain to exert intense pressure to postpone the trial until after the election. Chutkan, an Obama appointee, could plow forward with a trial anyway — and she’s repeatedly indicated that the campaign calendar has no bearing on her own. But doing so would require Trump to sit in a courtroom for weeks during the heart of the campaign. Trump has already used his crowded legal calendar as a campaign cudgel to raise funds and rally supporters by claiming to be the victim of political prosecutions and lawsuits,” Politico added.
A three-judge D.C. Circuit panel that heard arguments on the immunity issue on January 8 will continue to determine the case’s timeline for the time being. Due to opaque internal processes, seniority, and collegiality norms that make accurate forecasting impossible, this reality has concentrated enormous power in the hands of a small number of judges.
Following the arguments, many legal experts had anticipated a swift decision from the D.C. Circuit panel, possibly in a matter of days. However, the court has not spoken for more than three weeks. A ruling is not subject to any time constraints.
“The timing of a decision by the panel will indeed be a critical determinant of whether the case can go forward expeditiously,” said Daniel Richman, a Columbia University law professor.
The timing is key for both sides as the 2024 presidential election is underway.
Special Counsel Jack Smith has projected that it will take almost two months to present his case, and Trump will likely raise a defense, which could push back the deadline by several weeks. This increases the possibility that Trump will have to spend the entire Republican National Convention—or perhaps Election Day—in a courtroom.
Alternatively, the trial may be postponed until after the election if the Supreme Court accepts to consider Trump’s request for immunity but declines to immediately hear his appeal. Furthermore, Trump would almost certainly close the case if he prevailed.
At first glance, the three-judge D.C. Circuit panel seemed to be proceeding quickly: it took up the case in December on an emergency basis and held oral arguments a few weeks later, which was a lightning-fast timeline for the normally slow-moving court.
Because of this, when the D.C. Circuit issues its ruling, it may have a significant impact on whether Trump faces a criminal trial in 2024 that could result in jail time.
In addition, Smith has filed three more criminal cases against Trump, one in Florida alleging that he hoarded secrets related to national security at his Mar-a-Lago estate after leaving office; another in Georgia, where local prosecutors claim that Trump plotted to rig the 2020 Georgia presidential election; and a third in New York, where the Manhattan District Attorney claims that Trump fabricated records from his company to conceal payments for hush money to cover up an alleged affair with a porn star.