The Trump-Trials Round Robin

Welcome to a Leap Day edition of The Collision

While Nikki Haley is still fighting it out in the Republican primary, we’ve reached a point in the political cycle where the setup for the general election is clear: Barring any unforeseen circumstances, President Joe Biden will face Donald Trump. 

So, we thought we’d take this moment to survey where all of Trump’s legal battles stand, how they might affect the race in the months ahead, and what to watch for as politics and the law keep colliding. But first …

The Docket

  • Hunter Biden appeared behind closed doors for a deposition before two House committees Wednesday, testifying that he “did not involve” his father, Joe Biden, in his business activities. “Not while I was a practicing lawyer, not in my investments or transactions domestic or international, not as a board member, and not as an artist,” he said in a prepared statement provided to news outlets. Late last year, House Republicans, who are conducting an impeachment inquiry of President Biden, had subpoenaed Hunter, who at the time refused to comply. Republicans threatened to hold Hunter in contempt before he eventually agreed to testify. 
  • Republicans dismissed Hunter’s testimony on Wednesday, citing text message evidence that the younger Biden invoked his father in conversations with business associates or potential clients. Hunter, for his part, cited his drug use at the time and said he was not in the right state of mind. Rep. James Comer, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, made a statement to reporters following the hourslong deposition. “I think this was a great deposition for us,” Comer said. “It proved several bits of our evidence that we’ve been conducting throughout this investigation. But there are also some contradictory statements that I think need further review. So this impeachment inquiry will now go to the next phase, which will be a public hearing.”
  • It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the much bigger legal penalties (more on those below), but Donald Trump has paid the New York Times $392,000 to cover legal fees in a lawsuit against the paper. Trump had sued the Times over its investigation into his tax records. A judge dismissed the suit last year.
  • We’re running a bit long in this week’s Collision, so we will give you a full status report on the Biden-related legal issues when we return next week.

Status Report on Trump’s Trials

Former President Donald Trump sits in New York State Supreme Court during the civil fraud trial against the Trump Organization, in New York City on January 11, 2024. (Photo by PETER FOLEY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump sits in New York State Supreme Court during the civil fraud trial against the Trump Organization, in New York City on January 11, 2024. (Photo by PETER FOLEY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The special counsel’s D.C. election interference case.

In the not-so-distant past, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan announced that this case—alleging Trump violated four federal laws in his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election—would go to trial in early March. How quaint!

But that trial is now on hold indefinitely as the Supreme Court just announced Wednesday night that it would decide “whether and if so to what extent does a former President enjoy presidential immunity from criminal prosecution for conduct alleged to involve official acts during his tenure in office.” The justices will hear arguments on April 22 and, presumably, hand down their opinion in May.

What does that mean for the timing of the trial? First, it’s worth remembering that the Supreme Court decides questions, not cases. It may say Trump is not immune from prosecution for his specific acts and that the case will move forward. (Although that still doesn’t mean it’s heading to trial—the defense could have more motions up its sleeves). But that’s not the only outcome, or even the most likely one. 

The Supreme Court may instead say something like, “No, presidents are not immune from prosecution for all official acts, but they are from some, and here’s how to draw that line.” At that point, it could send the case back to Judge Chutkan to use this new test to decide where Trump’s actions fall on that spectrum, and that decision could once again go up on appeal to the D.C. Circuit and perhaps the Supreme Court for a second time. Buckle in; it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. 

So, is there any chance this goes to trial before the election? Yes, but not really. Even if the Supreme Court resolves the case, it’s likely that it’ll still be too late. The Department of Justice has a policy against holding criminal trials against political candidates too close to the election. And given how long this potential trial could last—both sides will want the jury to hear from dozens of witnesses—there’s not much chance that DOJ could wrap up the trial by Labor Day. (Remember, O.J. Simpson’s trial lasted 11 months!)

The special counsel’s Mar-a-Lago documents case. 

Of the four criminal cases facing the former president, the federal case involving Trump’s retention of classified documents after leaving the White House seemed the most straightforward and the most straightforwardly problematic for him.

The original indictment unsealed in June 2023 alleges, with lots of evidence, that Trump intentionally retained classified documents after leaving office, resisted efforts by the federal government to retrieve those documents, and tried to mislead investigators. Politically, it seemed like the easiest set of charges for people to digest as well: Trump had violated the law and was careless with state secrets.

But for those who thought this trial would begin swiftly, or even start before the election, the reality should have sunk in by now. The original trial start date was August 14, 2023, which was never reasonable. Special counsel Jack Smith sought a December 2023 start date. Trump’s lawyers wanted an indefinite delay, which is how this is playing out.

At the heart of the problem with a swift trial is something we covered in our very first Collision: Cases about classified documents require a long time to sift through the security-clearance issues. The process has slowed down considerably as the court figures out how much access to the relevant classified documents lawyers for Trump and his co-defendants (a political aide and a staffer at Mar-a-Lago) need. On top of that, Trump has used other pre-trial motions to slow things down, most recently moving to dismiss the case on the same “presidential immunity” grounds being litigated in the D.C. election interference case.

Some Trump critics have blamed Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee to the U.S. Court of the Southern District of Florida. In 2022, during the investigation into Trump’s stash of documents at Mar-a-Lago, Cannon presided over Trump’s civil suit against the government requesting a “special master” to examine the documents. Cannon granted the request in what many liberal legal commentators deemed an inordinately friendly ruling for Trump. The ruling was eventually overturned by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Her assignment in 2023 to the subsequent criminal case prompted many calls for Cannon to recuse herself. While there’s been little factual or legal basis established in favor of her recusal, all of her rulings on pre-trial motions have received close scrutiny from Trump opponents, even as some of her decisions have cut against Trump or his co-defendants, as happened as recently as this weektwice.

Politically speaking, however, the effect of this case on Trump’s standing with swing voters may have been blunted by the recent release of a report from another special counsel, Robert Hur, on his investigation into Joe Biden’s retention of classified documents. Yes, the Hur report argues against bringing charges against Biden because of the perceived difficulty in getting a conviction. Moreover, the lengths that Hur went to argue against charges meant he depicted the president as a confused elderly man, enraged Biden and Democrats.

But Hur’s findings look awfully similar to what Smith and federal investigators found with Trump’s classified documents situation: unguarded boxes of materials stored haphazardly, and a stated view from the principal that those classified documents belonged to “him”—not the government.

Beyond that, the facts of each president’s classified documents case are starkly different. Where Biden cooperated with investigators and worked to return sensitive material to its rightful place, Trump resisted. But in politics, perception is everything.

The Georgia election interference racketeering case.

Woof. This case took a turn in the last few weeks. 

Initially, this case about Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election looked like it could move quickly under state law. But the prosecutor, Fani Willis, unveiled a sprawling indictment covering 19 defendants and 41 counts. It was bound to get complicated. Even so, what happened was a total surprise. 

For several weeks, Willis has been battling accusations from the defendants that she hired her married boyfriend, Nathan Wade, as one of the special counsels for the prosecution and then benefitted from the salary that she paid him in the form of expensive trips for her and her family. After hearing from several witnesses—including Willis and Wade themselves—the judge will decide whether to disqualify Willis from prosecuting these cases moving forward. 

If the judge removes her, it could result in major delays for this case. There’s even a slim possibility the charges against Trump could be dismissed if a new prosecutor is brought in. Even if the judge does not remove her, Willis could face ethics complaints within her office and at the state bar. Be sure to read more of our past coverage of the sordid hearings over these motions.

This was always going to be a hard case to bring before the election. Trying a case with 19 defendants is, well, a challenge under normal circumstances—and these aren’t normal circumstances. And because it involves many of the same acts as the federal case, the Supreme Court’s decision on Trump’s criminal immunity will likely affect this case as well. 

Per usual, Donald Trump’s greatest gifts often come in the form of his enemies’ penchant for stepping on rakes. Michael Avenatti, anyone?

The New York hush money case.

This case is also set for trial at the end of March. It was the first criminal indictment brought against the former president, and it remains the weakest. Here’s what Sarah wrote nearly a year ago: 

This case will require that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg prove that Donald Trump violated a New York law on the falsification of business records for the purpose of committing a federal campaign finance violation that the federal government declined to prosecute. Again, we don’t need to get into the legal weeds here, but 1) it’s not even clear a state prosecutor can use a federal crime to bootstrap a state misdemeanor into a felony, 2) it’s unclear the facts underlying the federal crime even as alleged by the prosecution would, in fact, be a federal crime, and 3) his own office declined to prosecute this case under his predecessor because the legal grounds were so shaky.

Trump’s efforts to have the case dismissed have failed so far, but it’s also worth considering that Trump may see it as a political boon to his candidacy, whether he’s convicted or not. The underlying facts are nothing new to voters, and these legal weaknesses make this case Trump’s best argument that Democrats are using the law to come after him. 

(This case won’t be affected by the Supreme Court’s immunity decision because Trump wasn’t president when the alleged crimes occurred.)

The 14th Amendment disqualification case. 

All eyes are on the Supreme Court as we wait for its decision in this case. The court has no plans to release opinions this week, but next week … we’ll see. 

Earlier this month, the court heard oral arguments that did not go well for the Colorado voters who petitioned to get Trump disqualified from their ballot. The more interesting questions are: a) Will it be a unanimous decision? And b) Will the court leave it to Congress to decide whether Trump is disqualified after (and, of course, if) he is elected? 

If the court holds that only Congress can disqualify a president-elect, that will leave it to Democrats in Congress to decide whether to certify Trump’s election on January 6, 2025. 

The irony won’t be lost on anyone. 

The civil cases.

Trump owes a lot of money. That much is clear from the outcome of his two recent civil lawsuits.

The larger, a lawsuit based on New York’s idiosyncratic fraud law, allowed state Attorney General Letitia James to sue Trump, three of his children, and the Trump organization for defrauding banks and investors by misrepresenting Trump’s wealth and the company’s assets. The presiding judge, Arthur Engoron, issued a summary judgment finding the defendants guilty, and the weekslong trial at the end of 2023 and beginning of 2024 was held to determine how much Trump would be fined.

The final answer: More than $354 million, plus $100 million in interest. Engoron’s ruling also barred Trump and other organization officers from conducting certain business in New York for a few years. Trump is appealing, though it’s unclear whether he will be able to put up enough money to file that appeal formally.

The other lawsuit was actually the second verdict against Trump and for writer E. Jean Carroll, who had accused Trump of sexually assaulting her in the 1990s. The first came in May 2023, when a jury found Trump liable for sexual abuse and defamation based on a social-media post he had written about Carroll in 2022. 

The more recent verdict is actually from Carroll’s first lawsuit against Trump, in which she accused him of defaming her in 2019 after she first came forward with her accusations. In that lawsuit, a jury in late January awarded Carroll $83.3 million in damages. Trump has plans to appeal this verdict as well.

One additional detail in all this: As our colleague David Drucker reported last weekend, a member of the Republican National Committee is trying to put forth a resolution that would bar the committee from paying Trump’s legal bills. 

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