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Trump criminal cases hit delays, disruptions that play into campaign strategy

Criminal cases against Donald Trump hit new delays and disruptions this past week in New York and Georgia, adding more uncertainty to the legal cloud that hangs over the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, as he seeks to postpone and discredit the proceedings.

In New York, a judge agreed to delay Trump’s only criminal case with a meaningful trial start date, pushing it to mid-April at the earliest. The same day, the judge overseeing the former president’s election interference case in Atlanta took issue with a “significant appearance of impropriety” hanging over the prosecution — and said the embattled district attorney could stay on the case only if her lead lawyer stepped aside. Hours later, the lawyer resigned.

The developments underscore how many complications could keep Trump’s four criminal cases in limbo and push verdicts on weighty charges until after voters make their choice on Nov. 5. Trump is accused, across 88 charges, of interfering with the 2020 election, conspiring to overturn its results, mishandling classified documents and falsifying business records to conceal hush money. His legal team has sought to delay the proceedings while Trump stokes public doubts about the cases, sometimes capitalizing on unforced errors by the prosecution.

“If you’re Trump, obviously getting these things pushed back until the election is vital,” said Republican strategist Scott Jennings. The New York and Georgia cases, in his view, have become tough for Trump opponents to “squeeze any political juice out of.”

So far, the charges have not hobbled Trump’s reelection bid, even as they push it into uncharted legal and political territory, with Trump’s claims that he is being unfairly targeted resonating with many Republicans and helping him lock down the nomination. But the court proceedings could put constraints on his campaign activities, and polling suggests a conviction could hurt Trump with independents and some skeptical Republicans. The timing of all four cases against Trump remain up in the air.

Political strategists and legal experts view Trump’s two federal cases as more perilous, but it’s not clear they will happen before the election. Further delays in the New York trial could cause it to run up against the start date that federal prosecutors have requested in Trump’s classified documents trial.

Steve Sadow, Trump’s lead defense counsel in Georgia, said the defense team did not believe the court had given enough weight to prosecutors’ missteps and would “use all legal options available” to end the case.

“Any time the criminal defense has a postponement in a trial, it’s a good day for them,” said John Fishwick, a former federal prosecutor who has been following Trump’s cases closely.

If Trump is reelected, he could appoint an attorney general inclined to drop the two federal indictments. And the state-level prosecutors would have to decide whether to take on the unprecedented challenge of prosecuting a sitting president.

Republicans have long dismissed the New York case as convoluted and easiest to cast as partisan. Trump is accused of falsifying business records to cover up hush money payments to adult-film star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential campaign.

The trial was set to begin March 25. But on Thursday, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg told Justice Juan Merchan that prosecutors would agree to a 30-day delay to allow defense lawyers more time to examine newly released documents for any information that could be helpful to their case. Trump’s lawyers sought a 90-day delay.

New York prosecutors have said that federal prosecutors declined to share the new documents earlier. Trump’s lawyers ultimately subpoenaed the federal government.

On Friday, Merchan said the trial would not start for at least 30 days and announced he would hold a March 25 pretrial hearing to discuss evidence disputes and a motion from Trump’s team to throw out the case or bar certain testimony.

Fishwick argued that prosecutors should have worked to swiftly resolve the previous requests for federal prosecutors’ materials. “I was stunned that they didn’t manage that better,” he said of Bragg’s office.

The New York trial is expected to last six to eight weeks, including jury selection. A mid-April start could cause it to run into another high-profile case that Merchan is scheduled to hear in May: allegations that former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon defrauded donors to a fundraiser for building a southern border wall.

And further delays could present more conflicts. In mid-July, Republicans will formally nominate their presidential candidate at a convention in Milwaukee. Early July is when prosecutors have asked U.S. District Judge Aileen M. Cannon to reschedule the start of Trump’s classified-documents trial in Florida, where he is accused of withholding national defense information and obstructing government efforts to retrieve it.

The documents trial was initially scheduled to begin in late May, but Cannon has said more time is needed to sort through complicated trial issues involving classified evidence. Trump’s lawyers have asked Cannon to push the trial until after November’s election — or to start in August, at the earliest.

August also appears to be the earliest possible time frame for starting Trump’s federal trial in D.C., on charges of trying to block President Biden’s 2020 election victory. That case was supposed to begin in early March but is on pause while the U.S. Supreme Court considers Trump’s claim that he is shielded from prosecution by presidential immunity — a claim that two lower courts have already rejected.

The justices have scheduled arguments in that case for April 25, and will rule sometime between then and the end of their term, in late June or early July.

If the Supreme Court says the D.C. trial can proceed without any changes, the judge would probably give both sides between six and 12 weeks to finish up their preparations, which could mean Trump would be on trial in the nation’s capital in September or even October, as the election looms.

“The longer he can put off the actual witness testimony of what he did improperly around January 6th, the better it is for him,” said GOP strategist Mike DuHaime, a longtime adviser to Chris Christie, who was Trump’s most stridently critical opponent in the Republican primary. “That’s the part that’s going to hurt him.”

Whit Ayres, a longtime GOP pollster, emphasized that it’s hard to predict how voters would respond to a Trump conviction, despite polling on the subject. A significant share of Republican primary voters have said in surveys that they would consider Trump unfit for office if he was convicted of a felony, he noted, but they may also consider Biden unfit for office, making their ultimate vote hard to project.

He also views the New York case as a political “gift” to Trump with very different implications than the Jan. 6 case or classified-documents case. Ayres predicted that a conviction in either of the latter two cases would lead “a lot of soft Republicans and independents to reassess.”

Trump’s fourth indictment, a state election-obstruction case in Georgia, does not yet have a trial date and has been delayed by wrangling over whether Willis and her lead prosecutor engaged in misconduct by having a romantic relationship. The trial judge on Friday found an appearance of “impropriety,” but not an actual conflict of interest, and said either Willis and her office had to fully leave the case or her lead prosecutor, Nathan Wade, had to withdraw from the proceeding.

At rallies, Trump often criticizes the prosecutors in his cases and accuses them of being politically motivated. At a recent rally in Georgia, he mocked the pronunciation of Willis’s first name and called her “corrupt.” On social media on Friday, Trump celebrated that Wade had “resigned in disgrace.”

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee wrote Friday that the defendants failed to prove that Willis’s relationship with Wade, and their travel together, made Willis unable to oversee the case.

Trump and his lawyers have told judges in several of the cases that it is a burden for him to have to be in court for trial proceedings when he needs to be out campaigning. But Trump has at the same time attended many court hearings where his presence was not required, including this week while Biden was out on the campaign trail. He has generally held rallies on weekends, outside the days he would be in court.

As the cases have moved toward trial, the pace of hearings and filings has picked up dramatically. Weeks ahead appear just as packed.

A decision could come next week in Trump’s effort to delay a massive civil judgment against him in a trial in which he and his company were found to have unfairly inflated property values. As of now, the deadline to pay that nearly half-billion-dollar judgment is March 25.

Devlin Barrett, Perry Stein and Shayna Jacobs contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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