The downside of former President Donald Trump’s deciding to employ a political strategy, aimed at maximizing the chance of his reelection in November 2024, rather than a purely legal strategy — aimed at maximizing the chances of his acquittal on criminal charges — came into sharp relief on Monday.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan on Monday set a trial date of March 4, 2024 on federal charges alleging Trump’s multiple efforts to deny the election to Joseph Biden, who beat him in November 2020.
It certainly doesn’t help Trump that Chutkan has made clear that his lawyer, John Lauro, is already in a fairly deep hole with the judge. Lauro, presumably at Trump’s insistence, had responded to the Justice Department’s suggestion to start the trial in January 2024 with a preposterous proposal of April 2026.
Since Chutkan said that she will give no consideration to Trump’s personal political agenda, Lauro had to support the silly suggestion with specious arguments about volume of discovery and average length of other cases. She was matter-of-fact when she informed Lauro that she wasn’t buying what he was trying to sell: “You and I have a very, very different estimate of… the time that’s needed to prepare for this case.”
She also noted that the Trump legal team’s claim that “median time” for similar cases to go to trial — which it used to get to the April 2026 date — was misleading; that’s the time from commencement of a case to sentencing, not to trial.
In the setting of a federal court, these tart comments are the equivalent of a thorough boxing of Lauro’s ears. They suggested not only that the outlandish proposal of April 2026 had backfired, but also that Lauro’s credibility with Chutkan is already damaged, an ominous position, before the litigation has even started in earnest.
Yet Lauro dug in further, telling Chutkan “the trial date will deny President Trump, the opportunity to have effective assistance of counsel.” He was setting up issues for appeal, namely the alleged violation of Trump’s rights under the 5th and 6th Amendments. That kind of saber-rattling this early in the case might please the client, but it will do nothing to mend bridges with the judge.
Chutkan, of course, is aware of Trump’s due process rights, and the likelihood of a constitutional challenge down the line to her conduct of the trial, regardless of what happens. She may also have factored in the public’s interest in a speedy trial, which she mentioned in the back-and-forth with Lauro.
Chutkan easily could have ruled, as some judges would, that having received one serious scheduling proposal (the D.O.J.’s) and one joke (Trump’s), she would just take the credible option. Instead, she pushed the trial date forward into 2024, though not by a lot. This will bolster the case on appeal that she gave independent assessment to Trump’s due process rights.
I think it’s evident that Chutkan consulted with her colleagues on the D.C. federal district court to calibrate what she needs to do to move the case at a brisk pace, without giving Trump more issues to appeal. The D.C. federal judges as a group (including Chutkan) have overseen hundreds of cases arising out of the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. They are invested in ensuring that this, the most important prosecution in U.S. history, is smoothly handled.
It's no mystery why Trump is betting everything on a political strategy anchored in winning the election in November 2024. A return to the White House might give him power to eliminate some legal threats, but not all. He faces four trials and his co-defendants in the Georgia state prosecution are looking out for their own interests, not his.
Before the Monday morning hearing, Trump took to his social media platform TruthSocial to call Biden and the prosecutors “political SleazeBags” and “Fascist Thugs” and the case a “BIG LIE.”
His rage is not without costs. Earlier this month, Chutkan warned both sides about making statements that could prejudice the jury pool. “The more a party makes inflammatory statements about this case,” she said, “the greater the urgency will be that we proceed to trial quickly.”
He is playing with fire in the venue that at the end of the day might decide his fate most of all.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.