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Judge in the Mar-a-Lago classified documents case sets May 20 as the start date for Trump’s trial

The date falls in the middle of the 2024 presidential campaign. A grand jury is currently investigating the former president for his role in the attack on the Capitol, which could lead to a third indictment

Former U.S. President Donald Trump
Donald Trump at a rally in Texas last May.LEAH MILLIS (REUTERS)
Iker Seisdedos

It won’t be after the November 2024 presidential election, as Donald Trump’s defense team, had wanted, and it won’t be in December, as Jack Smith, the special prosecutor appointed by the Department of Justice, had hoped. This Friday, Judge Aileen M. Cannon, set May 20 as the date on which the trial in the classified Mar-a-Lago documents case will start in Fort Pierce, Florida (located about 124 miles from Miami), where her chambers are located.

The decision came following Tuesday’s preliminary hearing. The start date means that the case will be decided in the midst of the presidential campaign ahead of the November 2024 election. Trump currently has a lead of more than 30 points over his nearest opponent, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and will likely be the Republican candidate in the general election. All signs indicate that President Joe Biden, who is seeking reelection, will face him again in November’s contest. Trump claims that the charges brought against him represent an attempt to ruin his electoral prospects.

This announcement comes at the end of a week that began with Trump posting on his social media website, Truth Social, that he had received a target letter from Smith on Sunday. The missive informed the former president that he was being investigated by a grand jury in Washington, D.C., for the events between his November 2020 electoral loss to Biden — a defeat he still refuses to admit — and the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, which was carried out by a mob of his supporters following a rally in Washington on the day Congress was to certify the legitimate and peaceful transfer of presidential power. That notification represents a sign that a new indictment may be imminent.

That would be Trump’s third indictment, on the heels of the indictment for taking classified documents from the White House to his private residence at Mar-a-Lago without authorization and another one for allegedly paying hush money to porn actress Stormy Daniels to conceal an extramarital affair between the two, just weeks before the 2016 presidential election, which he won.

A historic milestone

The first indictment was issued in New York and represented a historic milestone: a former U.S. president had never been arrested before. The law does not prohibit an indicted, or even convicted, president from running for office or from serving as president if elected. The start date for the trial in Manhattan is set for March 2024. It will be interesting to see how the New York judge and the Florida judge coordinate to avoid getting in each other’s way.

A possible fourth indictment is also pending in Atlanta, Georgia, where a grand jury is investigating him for allegedly pressuring election officials to change the outcome of the November 2020 election.

In the case of the Mar-a-Lago papers, the former president is being tried for the handling of hundreds of secret or classified documents that he took without permission to his private residence in Palm Beach, which is also a hotel and a social club, when he left the White House in January 2021. Those papers, like those of any U.S. president when he leaves office, belong by law to the National Archives. He is also accused of refusing to return them when the authorities repeatedly asked for them. These resistances led to an FBI search on August 8, 2022, during which 48 boxes were seized.

Later, we learned that a portion of the classified documents Trump brought to Mar-a-Lago spent a couple of months on stage in the “Gold and White” ballroom, the smaller of the residence’s two ballrooms, a space in the club’s main building, which has hundreds of members and more than 150 employees. Next, they moved some boxes to the office area in the West wing of the complex, which includes a spa, gift shop, fitness centers, outdoor pool and courtyard. When an employee asked to clear out a room to accommodate his office, a dozen boxes literally ended up in the bathroom of “the lake room.” Soon after, Trump ordered that a downstairs storage room be cleared to store 80 boxes. According to the indictment — an explosive 49-page document, released just days before Trump appeared at the federal courthouse in downtown Miami on a sweltering June morning, which his supporters turned into a circus — the door to that space was often left open.

For that reason, Trump faces 37 charges: 31 of them are for intentionally withholding national defense information contained in as many documents; three are for keeping and hiding papers from federal investigations; two are for falsification; and the last charge is for conspiracy to obstruct justice with one of his employees, Walt Nauta. Nauta also faces charges for helping Trump hide the documents and lying to authorities.

The Mar-a-Lago papers contain information about U.S. and foreign defense capabilities, details about nuclear programs and potential vulnerabilities in the event of a foreign attack, as well as plans for responding to such an eventuality. While there is no evidence that any of the individuals who accessed them without proper authorization intended to spy, the indictment argues that the mere possibility put “foreign policy and national security and safety of the Armed Forces and their sources of information at risk.”

The selection of Judge Cannon, who was appointed by Trump in 2020, aroused suspicions because she ruled in favor of the defense during the investigation by granting Trump’s team’s request to appoint a special master to review the documents seized by the FBI; that decision was later reversed by an appeals court. Cannon initially set August 14 as the tentative start date for the trial. That turned out to be unrealistic, given the case’s complexity and the voluminous evidence that must be examined by the jury, made up of citizens of Florida, the state where Trump resides.

Cannon, 42, was born in Cali, Colombia, and is of Cuban descent. She worked in a circuit court, was an assistant federal prosecutor in Florida, and has ties to the Federalist Society, a powerful conservative-libertarian legal organization that advocates a literal reading of the U.S. Constitution. In addition to managing the pace of the case, her responsibilities include issuing rulings that will determine the outcome of the trial, deciding what evidence is admitted and, if he is found guilty, sentencing the former president.

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