Judges could determine the fate of 2 of Trump’s criminal trials in Florida, Georgia

Written by on February 29, 2024

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(WASHINGTON) — Two of Donald Trump’s criminal cases face a key inflection point on Friday, as judges in Florida and Georgia weigh plans for the historic trials of the former president.

In Florida, U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon is set to consider moving the May 20 trial date in Trump’s federal classified documents case during a court conference that the former president plans to attend in person.

Trump’s lawyers have argued that the case should be entirely dismissed based on Trump’s claim of presidential immunity — an argument that the Supreme Court on Wednesday said they would consider in Trump’s federal election interference case.

Trump pleaded not guilty last June to 37 criminal counts related to his handling of classified materials, after prosecutors said he repeatedly refused to return hundreds of documents containing classified information ranging from U.S. nuclear secrets to the nation’s defense capabilities, and took steps to thwart the government’s efforts to get the documents back. The former president has denied all wrongdoing in the case.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, Fulton County Judge Scott McAfee will hear final arguments on the potential disqualification of District Attorney Fani Willis from the election interference case she brought against Trump and 18 others, on the grounds that she allegedly benefited financially from a romantic relationship she had with one of the prosecutors she hired for the case.

And with only 25 days until jury selection begins in Trump’s criminal hush money case in New York, Friday’s court proceedings could fundamentally realign the former president’s legal battles as he races toward the 2024 presidential election.

The former president has pleaded not guilty and denied wrongdoing in all cases.

Trump’s conference in Florida

Trump plans to attend what is likely to be a marathon court conference Friday in his classified documents case, where attorneys will address multiple motions to dismiss the case, as well as issues surrounding the classified materials in question and scheduling challenges.

Trump’s co-defendants, longtime aide Walt Nauta and Mar-a-Lago staffer Carlos De Oliveira, are also expected to attend the hearing, which will be held in Fort Pierce, Florida.

The trial for the case is currently scheduled to begin on May 20.

Friday’s court conference follows several sealed hearings that were held this month to address access to evidence. Special counsel Jack Smith’s team and Trump’s attorneys have clashed over how much discovery information should be redacted — or completely withheld from public view.

Wednesday’s decision by the Supreme Court granting Trump’s request to consider whether he should have immunity from prosecution in his federal election subversion case has cast further doubt on whether the former president will stand trial on those charges prior to the 2024 election. Whether Trump can convince Judge Cannon to similarly delay his classified documents trial will be a central issue in Friday’s hearing — and could ultimately determine whether either case brought by Smith is ever heard by a jury.

In court filings, Trump’s lawyers have argued that the same argument of presidential immunity should apply to Trump’s alleged retention of classified documents, since the decision to remove the documents from the White House occurred while Trump was still president.

“The alleged decision was an official act, and as such is subject to presidential immunity,” defense lawyers wrote last week in a motion to dismiss the case.

In an additional series of motions, Trump’s attorneys argued that the case should be dismissed because Smith’s appointment as special counsel was unlawful; that Smith charged Trump with statutes that shouldn’t apply to the former president; and that Trump should have been able to have custody of the documents in question, even after he was president, because of the Presidential Records Act.

Complications surrounding the handling of classified documents in the case could also result in a delay. In November, Judge Cannon said she would make a decision on whether to move the trial date once the parties determined how classified discovery is handled at trial; however, the parties in the case still face multiple unresolved issues surrounding how classified information should be handled at trial and in pre-trial litigation.

Trump has been attempting to delay the trial for several months, with his attorneys arguing in court filings last year that the extraordinary nature of the case means there should be no reason to expedite the trial. Earlier this month the special counsel’s team said that Trump and his co-defendants “will stop at nothing to stall the adjudication of the charges against them by a fair and impartial jury of citizens.”

Judge Cannon previously ruled that Smith’s team must file a cache of documents on the public docket, but in a motion last month, Smith urged her to reconsider her ruling, saying that doing so would, among other things, reveal the names of potential witnesses in the case, “exposing them to significant and immediate risks of threats, intimidation, and harassment.”

“These risks are far from speculative in this case,” Smith argued in his filing. “Witnesses, agents, and judicial officers in this very case have been harassed and intimidated, and the further outing of additional witnesses will pose a similarly intolerable risk of turning their lives upside down.”

Smith is asking Judge Cannon to suspend her ruling until the matter is resolved, suggesting that he might try to appeal the ruling to a higher court if Cannon doesn’t reverse course.

Willis’ hearing in Georgia

Five hundred miles away from Judge Cannon’s Florida courtroom, the Fulton County judge overseeing Trump’s Georgia election interference case will hear arguments on Friday about the potential disqualification of DA Fani Willis.

“At this point, I need to start hearing the arguments and the law and what we’ve heard so far,” Judge McAfee said on Tuesday following three days of witness testimony. “If I think I’m able to reach a ruling based on that, I will.”

Defense lawyers have argued that Willis benefited financially by hiring a prosecutor with whom she had a romantic relationship and suggested that they both perjured themselves when they testified two weeks ago about the timing of their romantic relationship.

Both Willis and the prosecutor Nathan Wade said their romantic relationship started in the spring of 2022 — months after Wade was hired by the Fulton County district attorney’s office in November 2021.

“You’re confused. You think I’m on trial. These people are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020,” Willis testified, vehemently pushing back on the allegation that she benefited financially from the relationship.

“I’m not on trial, no matter how hard you try to put me on trial,” she said.

Defense lawyers initially argued that Wade’s former law partner and divorce lawyer, Terrence Bradley, would contradict Wade and Willis’ claim about when the relationship began, but Bradley testified this week that any past statements he made to that effect were “speculation on my part.”

“I do not know when the relationship started between Mr. Wade and Ms. Willis. I cannot recall that,” Bradley repeated during Tuesday’s two-hour hearing.

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