After the storm of Donald Trump’s historic court appearance on Tuesday, came the calm — one filled with uncertainty over what will happen next in the classified papers case against the former president.
Trump appeared at a federal courthouse on Tuesday to plead not guilty to 37 felony counts stemming from his handling of classified documents that were kept at his Mar-a-Lago mansion when he left the White House in 2021. The appearance was brief: in just five minutes, it was over. But it has opened a door to a trial that is likely to drag on — a scenario that would benefit the defense.
At the moment, there is only one clear date marked on the calendar: June 27. That is when Trump’s loyal aide Walt Nauta — who is facing six federal charges, including conspiring with Trump to withhold official documents — must appear before a judge. Like his boss, Nauta was charged and fingerprinted on Tuesday, but a procedural technicality prevented him from entering a plea that day.
Judge Goodman did not order preventive measures against Trump, who, for example, has permission to travel abroad. However, he is not authorized to speak with Nauta or with the witnesses in the case, unless it is via his lawyers. And — as we know from the movies — anything he says can and will be used against him in a court of law. This means Trump will have to watch his public diatribes, which began on Tuesday night. After leaving the courthouse and making a stop at the well-known Versailles restaurant — a popular hub for Miami’s Cuban exile community —, Trump flew to his Bedminster residence in New Jersey, where he gave a speech full of lies, half-truths and threats.
The classified papers case has already been passed to federal Judge Aileen Cannon, who was appointed by Trump when he was in office. She will be in charge of deciding the sentence if the Miami grand jury decides that the former president is guilty. She will oversee a still uncertain schedule of meetings with both sides, which will take place more or less every two months. This phase is known as “discovery,” and includes questioning, gathering documents and requesting admissions and statements.
If Trump’s legal team sticks to the strategy it has used many times before, it will try to delay the process as long as possible. It can do this by challenging every technical aspect of the case and turning it into a political spectacle, with Trump cast in the star role as victim of the system.
The most pressing issue on Trump’s agenda is to finalize his legal team. His lawyers James Trusty and John Rowley handled the brunt of the Mar-a-Lago papers case, but resigned the day after the indictment was made public. “It has been an honor to have spent the last year defending him, and we know he will be vindicated,” they said in a joint statement. Trump later announced that he was hiring Todd Blanche, who entered the former president’s “not guilty” plea on Tuesday. The New York Times reported that on Monday — a day before the arraignment — Trump spent the day interviewing lawyers at his golf course in Doral, a neighboring town of Miami.
The prosecution’s strategy
Special counsel Jack Smith, an independent lawyer appointed by the Justice Department to investigate the case, promised a “speedy trial” when he made public the indictment last Friday. This indictment will serve as the basis for what is studied by the grand jury, which is made up of citizens from Florida.
Last weekend, legal experts Norman Eisen Andrew Weissmann and Joyce Vance wrote an op-ed in The New York Times titled How To Convict Trump, which recommended Smith and his team try to “persuade the American public” and keep the case in simple terms. When a grand jury is involved, they explained, the evidence must be presented in a “readily understandable” way. “Fortunately for Mr. Smith, everything we know about the case provides ample support for an easily digestible one-two narrative punch of Mr. Trump taking documents that didn’t belong to him and then lying about it to cover up his misdeeds,” they wrote.
According to the legal experts, this is the only way that the trial will not coincide with the height of the presidential campaign, which heats up at the beginning of next year. The United States may yet be witness to yet another unprecedented situation: a presidential candidate (Trump is the favorite to win the Republican primaries) moving between rallies and the courtroom.
Courtrooms in plural, to be more specific. Trump is not only facing legal troubles over his handling of confidential papers at Mar-a-Lago. Last April, he was charged with 34 felony counts for his role in hush money paid to the porn star Stormy Daniels to cover up an alleged extramarital affair. What’s more, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who is investigating whether Trump illegally interfered in Georgia’s 2020 election, has said she plans to announce soon whether she will press charges. An indictment in that case could come as soon as August.
On Wednesday, the U.S. media reported that Atlanta police had sent officers to study the way in which Miami handled the hundreds of Trump supporters who had gathered near the courthouse on Tuesday for a protest that was not as large as local authorities had feared.
The U.S. judicial system is facing another challenge: how will the three judges from Miami, Atlanta and New York work together to ensure they don’t step on one another’s toes. And whether they will be capable of exercising patience and giving up the limelight to prioritize the cases against Trump based on their severity.
The only date that is clear at the moment concerns the least important of the three cases: the Stormy Daniels trial. It is scheduled to start on March 25, 2024.
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