Judge sets March 4 trial date in Trump election interference case

Former President Donald Trump is seen at an event in Orlando, Florida, Feb. 26, 2022. [AFP]

The trial of former U.S. President Donald Trump on charges of plotting to overturn the 2020 presidential election will be held next March, a federal judge ruled Monday.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is presiding over the case, set the high-profile trial for March 4, a day before Super Tuesday when voters in 15 states go to the polls to pick their party nominees for the 2024 presidential election.

Trump is currently the favorite to win the Republican nomination.

Prosecutors had wanted to begin the trial on January 2, while the Trump defense team sought to put it off until April 2026, more than two years after the election.

Chutkan rejected both proposed dates as "unacceptable." However, the trial date she set could complicate Trump's presidential campaign and legal battles on multiple fronts.

Not only will it coincide with the start of the presidential primary season, but it will also likely clash with other court proceedings involving him and his associates.

In the southern U.S. state of Georgia, where Trump and 18 others were recently indicted for conspiring to overturn the election outcome there, prosecutors have proposed a March 4 trial date. A judge has yet to set a date.

Three weeks later on March 25, Trump is scheduled to go on trial in New York in connection with a hush money payment to an adult movie start ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

And on May 20, he'll face a jury in Florida, where he was charged in June with illegally retaining classified documents after he left office and hiding them from investigators.

For Trump's federal election interference trial to proceed, the dates of his state trials in New York and Georgia would have to be adjusted, according to legal experts.

"It would seem that something has to give in trials expected to last weeks," Jonathan Turley, a law professor at The George Washington University, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Chutkan said she had spoken with the New York judge who is overseeing the hush money case. The Manhattan prosecutor has previously signaled an openness to change the trial date.

In the federal election interference case brought by special counsel Jack Smith, Trump faces four felony counts, including conspiracy to defraud the United States and conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding.

He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Trump's lawyers sought to delay the trial date citing the millions of pages of documents they must review and a potential conflict with other pending criminal cases.

Speaking during Monday's hearing, John Lauro, one of Trump's attorneys, called the government's proposed trial date "a violation to the oath of justice," saying never in history has a "case of this magnitude" gone to trial in four months.

But Chutkan, noting that the case featured one defendant and four counts, said the defense didn't need two years to "investigate" the case and prepare for trial.

Alluding to Trump's presidential campaign, she said that setting a trial date "does not, should not, depend on a defendant's personal and professional obligations."

"Mr. Trump, like any defendant, will have to make the trial date work, regardless of his schedule," Chutkan said.

Trump is the first former American president to face criminal charges. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Until his most recent criminal indictment in Georgia, Trump had dodged the ordeal of having to pose for a mugshot. But last week, he was made to face the camera when he was booked into an Atlanta jail, becoming the first former American president to have his mug shot taken.

Trump and his 18 co-defendants in Georgia will be arraigned on September 5, according to a court filing Monday. They each face one count of violating Georgia's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, as well as other charges.

One of Trump's 18 co-defendants, former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, took the stand Monday in federal court in Atlanta to argue that his case should be moved from state to federal court.

Meadows faces two counts: one RICO count and one count of solicitation of violation of oath by a public officer.

Of the four indictments Trump faces, the federal election fraud case looms the largest.

But how it will impact Trump's presidential run remains to be seen.

Thus far, Trump has defied the odds and remained the front-runner of the Republican Party, despite mounting legal troubles.

But a guilty verdict on the election interference charge could change that, according to Allan Lichtman, a professor of American history at American University in Washington.

"What if [Trump] is sitting in jail, which is not impossible, either," Lichtman said. "Technically, the guy could still run, but would the Republicans really want at the top of their ticket a guy who's been convicted of subverting our democracy?"

On his social media platform, Truth Social, Trump lashed out at Chutkan, calling her a "Trump Hating Judge" and vowing to "appeal" her ruling.

But legal experts noted that a trial date is not subject to appeal. And though they vowed to fight the charges against Trump, the former president's lawyers did not express any intention to appeal Chutkan's decision.