A US judge on Friday ordered Donald Trump’s trial for mishandling top secret documents to begin in May of next year, at the height of what is expected to be a bitter and divisive presidential election campaign.
US District Court Judge Aileen Cannon set the start of the jury trial of the former president — the first ever to face criminal charges — for May 20, 2024.
Prosecutors had asked for the trial to begin in December of this year, while Trump’s defense attorneys had requested it be held after the November 2024 election.
Cannon said she chose a May start date to give both sides time to process more than 1.1 million pages of discovery evidence and confront the challenge of handling the classified documents at the heart of the case.
“No one disagrees that Defendants need adequate time to review and evaluate it on their own accord,” said Cannon, a Trump appointee who was randomly assigned to the high-stakes legal battle.
The trial will be held at a federal courthouse in Fort Pierce, a city about 130 miles (210 kilometers) north of Miami in a part of Florida handily won by Trump in the 2016 and 2020 presidential contests.
The 77-year-old Trump is the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination and the trial will begin near the end of the primary campaign to select the party’s candidate.
The Republican National Convention, where the nominee will be selected, is to take place July 15-18 in Milwaukee but most of the major primary contests will have already taken place by May 20.
A Trump spokesperson welcomed the judge’s decision not to start the trial in December, calling it a “setback to the (Justice Department’s) crusade to deny President Trump a fair legal process.
“The extensive schedule allows President Trump and his legal team to continue fighting this empty hoax,” the spokesperson said.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said the judge, in choosing a May start date, appeared to be trying to “split the difference” between the requests of the prosecutors and the defense attorneys.
Trump may still seek to push back the start even further, Tobias said, since he has a “penchant for delaying virtually every legal proceeding in which he has been involved over decades.”
“He sees delay as his ‘friend,'” Tobias said.
The trial will not stop the onetime reality television star from campaigning, but a criminal defendant is generally required to be present during the proceedings, which are expected to last weeks, if not months.
If the trial is ongoing and Trump wins the November 2024 election, he could conceivably take action to intervene or even pardon himself upon taking office.
Trump pleaded not guilty last month to some three dozen criminal counts for allegedly refusing to return sensitive government records he took when he left the White House in 2021.
According to the indictment from special counsel Jack Smith, the former president stashed hundreds of classified documents in cardboard boxes at his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida.
Trump kept the records from the Pentagon, CIA, National Security Agency and others unsecured at Mar-a-Lago, the indictment says, including in a ballroom, a bathroom, his bedroom and a storage room.
Trump faces 31 counts of “willful retention of national defense information” relating to specific documents. A conviction on each count carries up to 10 years in prison.
Other charges include: conspiracy to obstruct justice, punishable by up to 20 years in prison; withholding a document or record, which also carries a potential 20-year sentence; and making false statements.
Waltine “Walt” Nauta, a personal aide to Trump, is charged with six counts for helping Trump hide documents at Mar-a-Lago. He has also pleaded not guilty.
Nauta, a 40-year-old US Navy veteran from Guam, served as Trump’s military valet while he was president and has continued working for him in a personal capacity since he left the White House.
Trump, who was impeached twice over allegations of misconduct while in office and was recently found liable for sexual abuse, has vowed to stay in the 2024 White House race regardless of the outcome of the documents case.
Trump faces other legal woes including a looming indictment from Smith for the former president’s attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election won by Democrat Joe Biden.
Trump also faces multiple felony counts in a New York fraud case involving alleged hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels.
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