WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal judge in Washington formally postponed Donald Trump's March trial on charges of plotting to overturn the 2020 election as a key legal appeal from the former president remains unresolved in the courts.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan on Friday vacated the March 4 trial date in the case brought by Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith but did not immediately set a new date.
The move opens the door for a separate prosecution in New York, charging Trump in connection with hush money payments to a porn actor, to proceed first. That case has long been seen as arguably the least legally perilous of the four indictments Trump faces, with the alleged misconduct less grave than accusations of mishandling classified documents or plotting to subvert a presidential election.
The postponement in Washington comes as a federal appeals court has yet to resolve a pending appeal from Trump arguing that he is immune from prosecution for actions he took in the White House. It is not clear when the three-judge panel might rule, but a ruling in favor of prosecutors that permits the case to move forward is expected to be appealed by the Trump team, likely resulting in additional delays.
For both sides, timing is of the essence. Trump, who faces four indictments and 91 felony counts, is looking to push his criminal cases back as he enjoys front-runner status in the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Smith's team, meanwhile, is hoping to be able to prosecute Trump this year before the November election. If Trump is elected while the case is pending, he could presumably order the Justice Department to drop it and could potentially try to seek a pardon for himself.
The Washington case had been expected to take place first, but it has been delayed for weeks by Trump's appeal on grounds that he is shielded from prosecution — a claim that has been vigorously disputed by Smith's team. The appeals court heard arguments on Jan. 9 and appeared skeptical of a Trump lawyer's position. Though the court has said it intended to work quickly, it has not yet issued a ruling.
The judge in the New York case, the first of four indictments filed against Trump last year, has long resisted defense demands that he postpone the March 25 start date in light of the conflicting trial date in Washington, figuring — correctly — that the former president’s legal calendar might change as the trial neared.
Trump is due back in court in Manhattan on Feb. 15 for a pretrial hearing where final details are expected to be ironed out. All signs point to the New York case starting on time. Trump’s lawyers and prosecutors have been discussing jury selection procedures with the judge and some witnesses have said they’ve been told to be ready to testify.
The New York case involves steps Trump allegedly took to hide payments that were made on the Republican’s behalf to suppress damaging stories before his 2016 win over Democrat Hillary Clinton, namely logging them as legal expenses. While a guilty verdict would give Trump another historic moniker as the first former president convicted of a crime, potentially complicating his campaign to return to the White House, there’s no guarantee of prison time.
Trump critics and rival campaign aides have long bemoaned that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s indictment was the first, believing that it helped blunt the political impact of more serious charges that followed because voters tuned out or grew confused by the myriad cases.
Bragg has eschewed his case’s “hush money” label, opting in recent weeks to describe it as another Trump “election interference” case — albeit, this one involving behind-the-scenes maneuvering during Trump’s first campaign for the White House in 2016.
Trump, meanwhile, faces dozens of felony charges in Florida accusing him of illegally retaining classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate. That case is set for trial on May 20 but could still be postponed. Another case in Georgia, brought by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, accuses him of plotting to overturn that state's 2020 election. No trial date has been set.
Associated Press writers Michael R. Sisak and Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.