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Judge in Trump’s classified documents case hears arguments about a trial date during crucial hearing

By ERIC TUCKER, ADRIANA GOMEZ LICON and FREIDA FRISARO, Associated Press
Published: March 1, 2024, 10:00am
3 Photos
FILE - This image, contained in the indictment against former President Donald Trump, and partially redacted by source, shows boxes of records being stored on the stage in the White and Gold Ballroom at Trump&rsquo;s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla.
FILE - This image, contained in the indictment against former President Donald Trump, and partially redacted by source, shows boxes of records being stored on the stage in the White and Gold Ballroom at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla. The federal judge overseeing the classified documents prosecution of Trump is expected to set a trial date during a court hearing on March 1, 2024.(Justice Department via AP) Photo Gallery

FORT PIERCE, Fla. (AP) — The federal judge overseeing the classified documents prosecution of Donald Trump heard arguments Friday about a potential trial date, a crucial decision that could affect whether the former president and leading Republican candidate faces a jury this year on charges that he hoarded top-secret records at his Mar-a-Lago estate and hid them from government investigators.

The trial, in federal court in Fort Pierce, Fla., is currently set for May 20. But U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon has already postponed multiple dates in the case and weighed competing requests from prosecutors and defense lawyers during a pivotal hearing Friday attended by Trump himself.

“This case can be tried this summer,” said prosecutor Jay Bratt, a member of special counsel Jack Smith’s team, which has pressed for a July 8 trial date. Defense lawyers, by contrast, contend that there is no fair way to hold a fair trial this year at a time when Trump is looking to clinch the Republican presidential nomination but they have nonetheless offered Aug. 12 as a possible date to begin jury selection.

“We very much believe that a trial that takes place before the election is a mistake and should not happen,” said defense lawyer Todd Blanche. “The easy solution is to start this trial after the election.”

Cannon did not immediately rule but hinted that she did not see the case as being on the cusp of trial, telling lawyers that “a lot of work remains to be done.”

Trump sat quietly and appeared to listen intently to the arguments, at times whispering with Blanche. Smith was also present, as were Trump’s two co-codefendants in the case, his valet Walt Nauta and Mar-a-Lago property manager Carlos De Oliveira.

The trial date has taken on added significance in light of the uncertainty surrounding a separate federal case in Washington charging Trump with scheming to overturn the 2020 presidential election. The Supreme Court said this week that it would hear arguments in late April on whether Trump as a former president is immune from prosecution, leaving it unclear whether that case — also brought by special counsel Jack Smith — might reach trial before the November election.

If the Florida classified documents case were to be postponed until after the election, and if the Washington election subversion case does not take place this year, that would mean voters would head to the polls without two blockbuster federal prosecutions — both alleging felony charges — being resolved by a jury.

The highly anticipated hearing is the first public one in weeks in the case and the most consequential court appearance to date. It comes as prosecutors have sought to lay bare the gravity of the allegations against Trump and amid signs of simmering tensions between Smith’s team and Cannon on the question of whether names of potential witnesses in the case could be disclosed by the defense on the public docket.

Trump faces 40 felony counts in Florida that accuse him of willfully retaining after he left the White House dozens of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago and then rebuffing government demands to give them back.

Prosecutors in recent court filings have stressed the scope of criminal conduct that they say they expect to prove at trial, saying this week in one brief that “there has never been a case in American history in which a former official has engaged in conduct remotely similar to Trump’s.”

They allege, for instance, that Trump intentionally held onto some of the nation’s most sensitive documents after he left office — only returning a fraction of them upon demand by the National Archives — and then urged his lawyer to hide records and to lie to the FBI by saying he no longer was in possession of them. He’s also charged with enlisting staff to delete surveillance footage that would show boxes of records being moved around the property.

Trump and his lawyers have denied any wrongdoing. They asked Cannon last week to dismiss the case, citing among other arguments the same immunity theory now being considered by the Supreme Court.

Among the issues issue expected to be discussed at Friday’s hearing is a dispute over whether defense lawyers can file publicly on the docket a substantially unredacted motion that would identify potential witnesses for the government and details of their expected testimony — information they were given by prosecutors under a protective order.

Cannon initially permitted the defense lawyers to disclose the witness names, but after prosecutors urged her to reconsider and said she had committed a “clear error,” she put the order on hold.

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