When the trial date for Donald Trump’s Manhattan hush money case was set for March — during the GOP presidential primary schedule — the former president and leading 2024 Republican candidate shook his head.
The Republican Party as a whole might have that reaction to Trump’s latest trial date.
U.S. District Judge Aileen M. Cannon on Friday set Trump’s Florida classified documents case to begin on May 20, 2024. Cannon wound up more or less splitting the difference between the government’s request to begin in December and Trump’s lawyers’ preference to begin after the 2024 election.
The date could still be pushed back, especially given that Cannon has labeled the case “complex.” But it means we’re currently looking at this for a schedule of Trump’s upcoming trials:
Oct. 2: New York civil fraud trialJan. 15: Second E. Jean Carroll civil defamation trialMarch 25: Manhattan hush-money trialMay 20: Federal classified documents trial in Florida
That’s a lot of legal issues to face in the heart of a campaign, keeping Trump or at least his lawyers in court for a huge chunk of time he’s supposed to be on the trail. But Trump’s most serious bit of legal jeopardy — at least for now, with potential Jan. 6-related indictments looming federally and in Georgia — won’t fully play out until the end of the primary season.
Nomination contests are often effectively wrapped up by March or April at the latest, with the final contests held in June but generally not consequential to the outcome. Republican National Committee rules effectively require every state to hold its contest by May 31, meaning a two-week classified documents trial would place the meat of the proceedings beyond the window for any GOP voters making their decisions.
In other words, it might not be exactly what Trump’s lawyers wanted; a post-election trial would have been ideal, for a host of reasons, including the possibility that it would last into a new Republican (or Trump) administration. But the May date means the issue won’t dog Trump as much as he attempts to secure the GOP nomination. And his campaign insisted afterward that it was happy, spinning the date as a “major setback” for the Justice Department.
As for the GOP itself, it’s far less welcome news. Indeed, it raises the prospect of what’s more or less a nightmare scenario.
The date could, again, be delayed. It’s not inconceivable that those delays could still kick it till after the election. But a trial date at the end of the primary schedule means the case could well be decided between when GOP voters have decided on their nominee and when general-election voters will decide the president.
Trump might still face some adverse verdicts before then — as he did in the first Carroll civil case. But if he’s convicted of any felonies, it will most likely come long after the point of no return for the party in its nominating contest.
The vast majority of voters will be voting before the end of March (Super Tuesday is March 5, followed by a handful of states on March 12 and 19), meaning they’ll be doing so without knowing whether they are effectively voting to put a felon on their party’s ticket.
And a conviction on the more serious charges, involving classified documents, would certainly provide the party no recourse, except to potentially try to take the nomination back from Trump at the Republican National Convention in mid-July.
You can guess how that would go down.
Despite Trump’s legal jeopardy, it seems that almost nothing could sway a large portion of the GOP against him. A new Yahoo/YouGov poll shows Republicans say 48 percent to 34 percent that Trump should still be allowed to serve as president even if he’s convicted of a serious crime. And they say 50-35 that he shouldn’t drop out of the race if he’s convicted. That’s in contrast to the 6 in 10 Americans overall who say Trump would effectively be disqualified.
Much has yet to play out, and we’re in the realm of the hypothetical. But there is certainly the possibility that Trump solidifies the nomination, is then convicted and is looking like a severe liability in the general election, but Republicans face severely alienating a huge portion of their party by trying to do anything about it.
Nor would Trump, of course, happily walk away. He’s never been a team player for his party — see: the 2021 Georgia Senate runoffs, voting by mail, etc. — and it has become evident that he views returning to power as part and parcel of his legal strategy.
It’s a recipe for potentially pulling the party apart at the seams in ways party leaders have bent over backward to avoid for years. Then again, Trump has never made it easy for them.