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Trump’s political fate likely won’t be decided by the courts after all

Trump’s political fate likely won’t be decided by the courts after all

What once resembled a wall of legal obstacles that stood between Donald Trump and his return to the White House is now looking like little more than a series of speed bumps.

Prosecutors handling cases from Georgia to Florida to Washington, D.C., are discovering that bringing groundbreaking criminal charges against a former president is a lot easier than getting them to trial.

The four criminal cases that Trump is facing have diverted him from the campaign trail and — as is evident from his speeches and social media feeds — have prompted him to devote an even greater share of his mental energy to his courtroom adversaries.

But, as of now, the wave of prosecutions don’t seem destined to deliver the kind of legal accountability that Trump’s investigators promised — or the devastating political blow to Trump’s presidential prospects that has animated his detractors since the cases were announced with great fanfare over a five-month span last year.

That’s because Trump has benefited enormously from a pileup of postponements. After a pair of delays this week in Georgia and Florida, the most likely scenario for 2024 is that the only trial that Trump will face before the election is the ongoing one in Manhattan: the hush money case, which many lawyers view as the least serious of the four, both in terms of the severity of the alleged wrongdoing and the prospect of prison time.

And if that scenario comes to pass, Trump’s critics will be deprived of the teaching moment they have long hoped for: some methodical public airing of the former president’s gravest misdeeds that would convince some swath of Trump supporters to rule out supporting him.

“I do think people had too high hopes for these cases to take the place of grass-roots organization and self-education and voting rights and getting people to the polls and basically having a more fundamental and a real conversation about what we are facing now in under 200 days,” said University of Baltimore law professor Kimberly Wehle, a former assistant U.S. attorney. “I just thought courts were the last thing standing.”

It may seem counterintuitive that the broader legal threat against Trump is receding as the former president is being forced to report to a New York City courtroom most weekdays for his hush money trial. That case, in which he is accused of falsifying business records, is historic in its own right, and Manhattan prosecutors have framed the allegations as a form of election interference.

However, in the span of less than 24 hours this week, the already-modest chances of Trump facing any other trials in the next six months diminished further.

On Tuesday evening, the Trump-appointed judge in Florida overseeing his prosecution on charges of hoarding classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate and obstructing the federal investigation into them, postponed that trial indefinitely, citing a slew of pending motions and special procedures related to handling of classified evidence in court.

And on Wednesday morning, the Georgia Court of Appeals agreed to take up the ex-president’s bid to disqualify Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis from proceeding with her case charging Trump with leading a conspiracy to overturn the 2020 presidential election in that state. That move likely means months more delay in the case, where no trial date has been set for Trump or his 14 co-defendants.

That leaves the fourth, and arguably most serious, case: the federal charges in Washington for conspiring to derail the peaceful transfer of power to Joe Biden. That case had been scheduled to go to trial two months ago, but it, too, has been on hold. The Supreme Court froze the proceedings in the trial court by agreeing to hear Trump’s appeal claiming presidential immunity. Oral arguments last month signaled the justices may order the trial judge, Tanya Chutkan, to conduct a painstaking, and time-consuming, review of the charges and evidence before conducting any trial.

A decision from the Supreme Court may not come until the end of June. If the justices don’t kill the case against Trump entirely, it may limp on as the lower courts wrestle with how to apply whatever immunity the justices decide former presidents enjoy. And even if the case is ready to proceed to trial by late summer or fall, it’s unclear whether Chutkan, an Obama appointee, would contemplate holding a trial for Trump in the nation’s capital at the height of the presidential campaign while Trump is seeking to win back the White House.

The frustration with the pace of court action in the Trump cases has prompted some liberal commentators to seize on the possibility that, with the clock running out before the election, Chutkan might hold a wide-ranging evidentiary hearing with witnesses who could publicly air Trump’s varied efforts to upend the 2020 election. The formal purpose of such a hearing would be for the judge to consider whether those efforts were related to his presidential duties or done in service of personal or political ends. But, for some critics, it might also be the only chance at public accountability before voters head to the polls.

“It delays the trial on the one hand but, on the other hand, that could be the opportunity for some of the government’s evidence, the meticulous work that [special counsel] Jack Smith did in front of the grand jury, that could soon become something that Americans are conversant with. We have an opportunity to see more of the evidence against Donald Trump,” former U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance said on MSNBC.

While such a mini-trial might generate some new insights and could divert Trump from the campaign trail, it seems unlikely to generate the kind of drama of an actual trial before a jury. It’s also unclear how much political impact such a hearing would have given that so much of Trump’s actions in the lead-up to Jan. 6, 2021, have already been exposed during the hearings a House select committee held in 2022 on his effort to undermine the election results and halt the Congress’ counting of electoral votes.

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