Friday, May 24, 2024

In the next few months, as the weather warms in Washington, something remarkable could happen in the city’s federal courthouse: Donald J. Trump could become the first former president in U.S. history to sit through a trial as a criminal defendant.

The trial, based on charges that Mr. Trump conspired to overturn the 2020 election, is scheduled to start in early March. And while the date could change, it is likely that a jury will sit in judgment of Mr. Trump before the 2024 election — perhaps even before the Republican Party meets in Milwaukee in July for its nominating convention.

Mr. Trump is the front-runner for the Republican nomination and is facing 91 felony charges in four separate cases. Putting him on trial either before the convention or during the general election would potentially lead to a series of events that have never been seen before in the annals of American law and politics.

It would almost certainly fuse Mr. Trump’s role as a criminal defendant with his role as a presidential candidate. It would transform the steps of the federal courthouse into a site for daily impromptu campaign rallies. And it would place the legal case and the race for the White House on a direct collision course, each one increasingly capable of shaping the other.

Throughout it all, Mr. Trump would almost certainly seek to turn the ordinarily sober courtroom proceedings into fodder he could use to influence public opinion and gain any advantage he can in a presidential race unlike any other.

“There is no useful precedent for this — legally, politically — in any dimension that you want to analyze it,” said Chuck Rosenberg, a former United States attorney and F.B.I. official. “The turbulence is particularly dangerous because if Mr. Trump is convicted, he has set the stage for a large portion of the population to reject the jury’s verdict. As part of that, it is also his call to arms, and so there are other dangers that attend to his rhetoric.”

The expectations of how a Trump trial would unfold before the election are based on interviews with people close to the former president. Already, Mr. Trump has sought to capitalize on the New York attorney general’s fraud case against him and his company. In that case, now underway in a Manhattan courtroom, Mr. Trump has shown up when he didn’t have to and has addressed reporters repeatedly. At the Washington trial, there will surely be enormous security, not only because of Mr. Trump’s status as a former president, but also because the event could become a flashpoint for conflict. There has been no violence during Mr. Trump’s various arraignments, when law enforcement officials had feared the worst.

Still, there are some variables at play that could push the trial in Washington until after the election.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers are planning to appeal a decision last week by Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, who is presiding over the election case, to deny his sweeping claims that he enjoys absolute immunity from the indictment because it covers actions he took while he was president. That appeal, on a question that has never been fully tested, could end up in front of the Supreme Court, further delaying the case even if prosecutors ultimately win the argument on the merits.

But despite such time-buying tactics, Mr. Trump’s legal team is cautiously preparing for a trial in the late spring or early summer. While the other three cases in which Mr. Trump is facing charges are much likelier to be pushed off until after Election Day, the former president’s team believes Judge Chutkan is intent on keeping the proceeding she is overseeing moving ahead.

Mr. Trump has already turned his legal travails into a campaign message that doubles as a lucrative online fund-raising tool. But his attempts to reap political benefit from his prosecutions and to use his legal proceedings as a platform for his talking points about victimhood and grievance are likely to only intensify if he is actually on trial, in the nation’s capital, in the middle of the 2024 presidential cycle.

There is no evidence that President Biden has meddled in any of the Trump prosecutions. Still, people close to Mr. Trump are planning to exploit the situation by falsely claiming to voters that Mr. Biden is a “socialist” leader directly seeking to imprison his political rival. One of those people, who was not authorized to speak publicly, suggested that this message could resonate especially powerfully with Hispanic voters, some of whom have family members who have suffered under dictatorial regimes in Latin America.

When he is in Judge Chutkan’s courtroom, Mr. Trump is likely to be fairly well-behaved, constrained by his lawyers and by the federal rules of criminal procedure. He is unlikely to say much at all under Judge Chutkan’s supervision. And his silence inside the courtroom may feel all the quieter given the noise he is likely to make outside it in front of the television cameras that will surely await him every day.

Even now, Mr. Trump has been engaging in a fusillade of daily attacks not only against the election case in Washington but also against his three other criminal cases — as well as his civil fraud trial in Manhattan.

He has tried to blur all four cases together in the public’s mind as one giant “witch hunt,” yoking them to previous investigations into him. He has assailed the judges, prosecutors and witnesses involved in the cases, leveraging moments when gag orders against him have been temporarily lifted. He has also mounted a sustained publicity blitz, comparing himself to Nelson Mandela while portraying the indictments against him as retaliatory strikes by his political opponents, including Mr. Biden.

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