Two courtroom dramas 700 miles apart arising from Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the last election conjured a preview of the most tortured campaign season of modern times next year.
In Washington, DC, a federal judge set a trial date for the former president’s federal election subversion case for March 4 – a day before the Super Tuesday primaries that will hand out a huge portion of the delegates Trump needs to win the GOP nomination. Currently the front-runner for the GOP nomination, Trump has already pleaded not guilty in a case he’s slammed as 2024 election interference. But Judge Tanya Chutkan’s decision increased the possibility that the Republican Party will nominate a convicted felon.
While the country was getting its head around that previously unthinkable scenario, Trump’s former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, was on the stand in Georgia in a risky attempt to extricate himself from a separate state racketeering case in which he is charged along with Trump and 17 co-defendants with attempting to steal victory in the 2020 battleground. Meadows wants to move his case to federal court, where he may have a better chance of having it dismissed.
Meadows is not the first White House chief of staff to be charged with a crime. Richard Nixon henchman H.R. Haldeman went to jail for conspiracy, obstruction and perjury. But Trump’s Oval Office gatekeeper’s ordeal occurred in the first major courtroom battle following Trump’s four indictments. Monday offered the first chance for prosecutors in any of the cases against Trump to preview evidence in court that could potentially convict him. At any time, the spectacle of a White House chief of staff being cross-examined, albeit in an evidential hearing, would have helped define a political era. In the exhausting, logic-defying Trump epoch, it may not even have been the day’s most significant event.
The ex-president’s political method has always been to flood the zone with so much chaos that the nation is numbed by his behavior. In office, this gave him room to escalate his aberrations. As a criminal defendant, legal theatrics from him and his allies have tended to blur the significance of each development.
But even by Trump’s standards, Monday was a doozy.
Trump’s flurry of indictments made the collision of his legal nightmare and his presidential campaign inevitable. Every subsequent legal move will show just how destabilizing this process will be, and raises the likelihood that yet another US election will be swamped by legal controversy, following Hillary Clinton’s email saga in 2016 and Trump’s election fraud lies in 2020. The damage wrought to Americans’ faith in free, fair US elections and confidence in law enforcement and judicial institutions was already grave. But the impact of multiple criminal trials targeting a potential major party nominee – and possible next president – could be impossible to calculate and is sure to weigh over the next administration, whoever wins.
Given that Trump had sought to push the federal election subversion trial into 2026, Chutkan’s decision to set it for March 4 was a significant defeat. The former president seemed to hope that he’d be back in the Oval Office by the time of a trial – in enough time to appoint an attorney general who could prevent the case from ever reaching court. Trump could theoretically seek to pardon himself in the federal case if he is convicted by a jury and then is elected president – in yet another stunning possibility voters might have to consider next year.
The selection of the March 4 date is certain to fuel new warnings from Republicans that its proximity to Super Tuesday cannot be a coincidence and that it is proof of political chicanery. For all the noise, however, Chutkan is showing every sign of operating according to a judicial calendar and not a political one. She, for example, warned Trump’s defense team that his personal or professional interests – implicitly his political career – could not take precedence over the trial, and showed that she wants to push proceedings along with reasonable speed, even if she ruled that special counsel Jack Smith’s request for a trial beginning in January was too soon.
“The opening signal she’s sent here is that she’s serious. She thinks the case, while historically important, is not terribly complex and can be tried next March,” Tom Dupree, a former senior Justice Department official in the George W. Bush administration, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Monday.
The timing increases the chances that before going to the polls in November 2024, Americans will have a full understanding of the implications of at least one of the trials looking into Trump’s attempt to destroy America’s tradition of transferring power from one president to the next. In that sense, a trial that begins in March would have a civic purpose and could be vital to US democracy. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor and Trump-friend-turned-critic challenging him for the 2024 Republican nomination, suggested this was the reason that Smith charged the case as he did. “I think it is a realistic date given that it is a one-defendant case,” Christie told Tapper. “There was a question about why did Jack Smith just indict Donald Trump and have six unindicted co-conspirators,” Christie said. “I think today is the reason why he did that.”
Trump’s campaign reacted furiously to the trial date, accusing Smith and Biden of indulging in election interference with the scheduling of the trial opening just before Super Tuesday. Biden has nothing to do with the trial date being set. But Trump may have a point, given that the case is being brought nearly three years after the 2020 election, meaning that the trial will fall in the middle of the next campaign. Arguments about indictments being intentionally brought close to the 2024 election have also come up in other cases in which Trump has pleaded not guilty, including in Smith’s indictments over Trump’s alleged mishandling of national security information at Mar-a-Lago, and even more so in relation to the Manhattan case arising from a hush money payment to an adult film actress, made before an even more distant presidential election in 2016.
But intricate criminal investigations take time, and the conduct of which Trump is accused – especially in the election cases – is unprecedented and momentous. And there is more than a strong suspicion that the ex-president launched his bid to win back the White House last fall both to be able to claim that he is being politically persecuted and in an attempt to win back the executive powers that would help him meddle with any federal efforts to hold him to account.
Trial dates set by judges are not usually subject to appeal. But the ex-president’s legal team is likely to do anything it can to find some avenue to get higher courts involved in the Washington, DC, case, potentially trying to go all the way up to the Supreme Court, where they might hope for an assist from the conservative majority that Trump constructed – although the top bench offered little help to his often spurious cases claiming widespread fraud following the 2020 election.
It’s still possible that the Georgia election subversion could take place before the federal case since Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis requested a trial date of October 2023 after several defendants invoked their right to a speedy trial. But the Willis case is extraordinarily complex given the number of co-defendants, whom Willis has said she wants to try together. Trump’s team is also expected to push back strongly against that date, so there’s every chance that the trial in Chutkan’s court will be the first that puts Trump’s fate and even liberty on the line.
And assuming that March 4 date holds, it will shape the GOP primary and provoke difficult strategy decisions for the ex-president’s currently distant rivals.
The results in early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina would already be known by the time the trial began. A sweep by Trump – or even a strong performance – could effectively knock his rivals out of the race by then. But if the contest is ongoing, it’s unclear how news of Trump going on trial would play out on the eve of Super Tuesday. (The fact that television coverage is not allowed in federal court could be important here).
If a strong anti-Trump candidate has emerged by late February, he or she will have an incentive to try to take advantage of the possibility of a potential GOP nominee who could be convicted. This is a risky political course, however. While long-shot candidates like Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson have long argued that Trump is not fit for the Oval Office because of his criminal exposure, other higher-polling hopefuls have been wary of criticizing the ex-president for fear of alienating not just his supporters, but other Republican voters who were satisfied with his presidency and believe he is being persecuted.
Most of the candidates at last week’s presidential debate in Milwaukee raised their hands when asked whether they would support Trump if he is convicted. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott are among the candidates who have equivocated over Trump’s legal quagmire – preferring to attack Democrats for “weaponizing” justice.
But it’s hard to see how a trial date in the middle of election season will help Trump – who’s already alienated many critical swing state and moderate voters – at least unless he is quickly acquitted. This plays into a critical argument now being voiced by former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who put in a strong performance at the debate. She argues that Trump, whom she served as ambassador to the United Nations, is the most disliked candidate in America and would be a liability in November.
“We can’t win a general election that way,” said Haley, unveiling a strategy that could gain more currency given Monday’s news – assuming she, or anyone willing to make it, is still in the race by the time of a trial next year.