Judge hints at delay for Trump’s March trial date in federal election case

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The judge overseeing the federal criminal case against Donald Trump for attempting to subvert the 2020 presidential election indicated Thursday that the March 4 trial date is unlikely to hold.

In a six-page order, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan barred special counsel Jack Smith from filing substantive new motions without advance permission while Trump is seeking to have the case thrown out on “presidential immunity” grounds.

The judge, an appointee of President Barack Obama, noted that she set the March trial date last August to allow Trump and his attorneys seven months to prepare.

But that clock was paused in December, after Trump appealed Chutkan’s determination that Trump was not immune from criminal prosecution. The appeal also meant that all of Chutkan’s previously established deadlines for pretrial filings were paused as well, freeing Trump from any legal steps he might need to or choose to take in advance of trial.

In Thursday’s order, Chutkan suggested that the time that has elapsed since his appeal would not be counted against him if the case gets back on track.

“Contrary to Defendant’s assertion, the court has not and will not set deadlines in this case based on the assumption that he has undertaken preparations when not required to do so,” she wrote.

That remark suggests that a delay of weeks or even months in the trial is possible, as Trump’s bid to dismiss the case remains pending before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Trump’s lawyers had asked that prosecutors be held in contempt for continuing to file notices and a motion with the court and by turning over evidence related to the case despite an earlier order from Chutkan that put the case on hold while Trump's appeal proceeds.

Trump’s attorneys said the filings diverted their attention from other matters and undermined the former president’s claim — which Chutkan has rejected — that he enjoys near-absolute immunity from criminal prosecution because the actions he took relating to the 2020 election were part of his official duties.

Chutkan declined to hold anyone in contempt, noting that her earlier order never told prosecutors to stop filing motions with the court or stop sharing discovery material with the defense. However, in her Thursday order, she directed that until the appeal is resolved prosecutors will need advance permission to submit any further motions related to the substance of the case.

Chutkan also said Trump could raise additional objections to any of Smith’s recent filings “if and when” the appellate courts send the case back to her and she “sets a new schedule.”

A spokesperson for Smith declined to comment on the judge’s new order.

In a statement Thursday, Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung accused Smith of “playing games with the court’s docket” by using it to air unflattering claims about the former president while the case is on hold.

Chutkan’s order, by contrast, said she was not concluding that prosecutors acted in “bad faith.”

In recent weeks, many legal analysts questioned the feasibility of the March 4 trial date in light of the pending D.C. Circuit appeal and the timing of expected efforts to seek review from the Supreme Court.

However, Chutkan had not previously acknowledged that a delay was certain or even likely.

Critical deadlines related to the scheduled trial have already passed and others loom. Potential jurors were told to report on Feb. 9 to fill out detailed questionnaires, but that date seems in jeopardy at this point unless the appeals court and potentially the Supreme Court move with unusual haste.

Chutkan could face a scheduling challenge for the trial if the delays push it back by more than a few weeks. Trump is currently scheduled to go on trial May 20 in Florida in another case brought by Smith. That one accuses the former president of illegally retaining classified information after leaving office and refusing to return it, among other charges.