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Judge sets Trump documents trial for May 2024, a soft spot in presidential primary season

In this file photo from July 29, 2020, Aileen Cannon testifies remotely before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary on her nomination to be United States District Judge for the Southern District of Florida in Washington, D.C.    (U.S. Senate Television/CNP/Zuma Press/TNS)
By Jay Weaver Miami Herald

MIAMI – A federal judge on Friday set a May 2024 trial date for the Justice Department’s classified documents case against former President Donald Trump in South Florida, giving both sides time to prepare while avoiding putting it off until after the presidential election next year.

Trump’s lawyers had urged U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon to postpone the proceeding until after the 2024 presidential election in November. They argued the politically charged trial would interfere with his campaigning as the front-running candidate for the GOP nomination and that holding it before the election would affect his right to a fair proceeding.

Prosecutors with the Justice Department’s special counsel had suggested mid-December, saying that despite being a former president running for reelection, Trump is now like any other person charged with a crime.

The May 20, 2024, trial date set by Cannon, a Trump appointee to the federal bench, appears to be a compromise – but it is also a soft spot on the election calendar. It would allow the former president, who is charged with retaining classified materials at his Palm Beach estate and obstructing justice, to campaign during crucial early months of the primary season.

The trial would come long after the earliest Republican primary contests and more than two months after Super Tuesday on March 5, a pivotal date on the calendar when many states select their preferred party nominee. Florida’s primary vote is on March 19. It’s also two months before the GOP convention in Milwaukee, which begins on July 15.

The Trump campaign pronounced the ruling a victory, though his attorneys did not win the indefinite postponement until after Election Day that they had sought from Cannon. A spokesman released a statement peppered with the former president’s typical hyperbolic dismissals that the 38-count criminal indictment amounts to an “empty hoax” pursued by a political rival, President Joe Biden.

“Today’s order by Judge Cannon is a major setback to the DOJ’s crusade to deny President Trump a fair legal process,” the spokesman said.

In her ruling, Cannon struck a balance in setting a trial date in May, saying the Justice Department’s “proposed schedule is atypically accelerated and inconsistent with ensuring a fair trial.”

But at the same time, Cannon’s decision indicated she did not want to wait until after the presidential election to hold Trump’s trial, rejecting his lawyers’ arguments about postponing the proceeding indefinitely because of the political implications.

Cannon noted that the lawyers for Trump and his co-defendant, aide Walt Nauta, “identify various additional factors the Court deems unnecessary to resolution of the Government’s motion at this juncture, most principally the likelihood of insurmountable prejudice in jury selection stemming from publicity about the 2024 Presidential Election.”

In setting the trial date, Cannon may also have wanted to avoid any conflict with Trump’s state trial set for March 2024 in Manhattan, where he is charged with paying hush money to a porn star to prevent her from going public with their reported affair during the 2016 presidential election.

In the documents case, Cannon laid out a detailed schedule for filing motions and dealing with classified evidence during the trial, which is scheduled to take place in her courtroom in the Fort Pierce federal courthouse. While setting the trial for May 20, 2024 – a Saturday on the calendar – it is likely the unprecedented case would start with jury selection on May 22, a Monday.

“The Court finds that the interests of justice served by this continuance outweigh the best interest of the public and Defendants in a speedy trial,” Cannon concluded. She had initially set Trump’s trial for Aug. 14 as a place-keeping date within the 70-day speedy trial deadline in federal court, expecting both sides to ask her to delay it.

A political operative who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign and remains close to the former president’s team cast doubt on the idea that the trial will actually begin in May 2024.

Trump has faced legal woes throughout his lengthy time in the public eye and has a proven ability to delay proceedings, Bryan Lanza said.

“If you look at the president’s history, he has had a strong skill, a unique skill, a very specialized skill in delaying trials and court dates,” he said. “This won’t be any different.”

Lanza also brushed off the notion that the trial would have any real political repercussions for Trump. If anything, he argued, any trial is likely to serve as further evidence of Trump’s claim that he’s the victim of a “witch hunt” by politically driven prosecutors.

“This just becomes another reason why he needs to quadruple down in fighting back against the administrative state,” Lanza said. “You’re talking about a man who’s dealt with hundreds of lawsuits over the course of his life. This, to him, is just another scratch. He knows his pattern of success.”