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Running Out the Clock When Time is of the Essence


— Donald J. Trump, who has now effectively become the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee, faces 91 felony counts and is charged with numerous crimes ranging from allegations that he tried to subvert elections, illegally hoarded classified documents, and falsified business records with a hush money payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels.

— The Supreme Court agreed to hear Trump’s claims of immunity from prosecution for alleged crimes committed while he was in office. Based on the timing of SCOTUS decisions and the D.C. court’s timeline, it’s not clear whether the federal election interference case will go to trial and have a verdict before Election Day 2024.

— Surveys show that many voters are not paying that much attention to the trials and media coverage has been focused on horse race coverage of how Trump is doing in the primary elections.

Trump’s trials

Donald J. Trump, who has effectively wrapped up the Republican presidential nomination, faces 91 felony counts and is charged with numerous crimes ranging from allegations that he tried to subvert elections, illegally hoarded classified documents, and falsified business records with a hush money payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels. In this article, we provide an update on where the trials stand, what we know about public opinion, and the implications for the 2024 presidential election. In all the cases, Trump and his team have deployed a delay strategy to run out the clock in the election year, while also using the charges to portray himself as a victim, even going so far as to compare himself to Russian political opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who recently died in prison.

In the classified documents case being tried in Florida, the former president is facing 40 charges for violating national security laws, illegally hoarding classified documents related to his presidency, violating the Espionage Act, and making false statements. Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee, originally set the trial to start May 20. On March 1, Judge Cannon held a hearing and then delayed a decision of how long the trial would be postponed.

In New York, Trump is charged with falsifying business records regarding a payoff to adult film actress Stormy Daniels. The story about their relationship was set to break right before the 2016 presidential election, when Trump paid her in exchange for her silence to keep their relationship out of the headlines. Jury selection is scheduled to begin March 25. This may be the least impactful case, but it now is likely to be the first to go to trial.

In the Georgia election interference case, Trump was indicted on 13 counts, including violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (aka RICO, normally used for organized crime and the mafia), conspiracy to impersonate a public officer, and conspiracy to commit false statements and writings (18 others were indicted as well). The District Attorney of Fulton County, Fani Willis, called for the trial to begin in August, but that is not likely to happen as proceedings have been delayed because the Trump team alleges Willis’s personal relationship with a special counsel resulted in a financial conflict of interest. If the case does move forward but without Willis, the appointment of a new prosecutor will delay proceedings likely until after the 2024 election. (On Wednesday, Politico reported that “Arizona prosecutors in recent weeks issued grand jury subpoenas to multiple people linked to Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign, a sharp acceleration of their criminal investigation into efforts to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the state.”)

More importantly, the Supreme Court also announced that it will take up the question of whether Trump is immune from prosecution for any alleged crimes committed while in office, with arguments set to begin the week of April 22. The court is taking up the question at the request of Trump, who has claimed that sitting presidents possess almost total immunity. SCOTUS taking up the immunity question means a delay in the trial for the federal election interference case, which is being tried in Washington, D.C. under Judge Tanya Chutkan, a Barack Obama appointee, and prosecution led by Department of Justice Special Counsel Jack Smith. The case consists of some of the most arduous charges that can be brought against a former U.S. president. Trump is accused of conspiring to overturn the election, spreading baseless claims about voter fraud while knowing them to be false, and pressuring election officials. The original trial date was set for March 4, and Judge Chutkan allocated seven months for pretrial proceedings. However, proceedings were put on hold on Dec. 13, about four months after the former president first was indicted in that case, because of Trump’s immunity claims.

Based on the timing of SCOTUS decisions and the D.C. court’s timeline, it’s not clear whether the federal election interference case will go to trial and have a verdict before Election Day 2024 (Nov. 5). This ostensibly means that voters may not hear all the evidence of how the former president attempted to subvert the 2020 election outcome before making a decision in the 2024 election. According to Rolling Stone, the announcement that SCOTUS would decide on immunity in the federal election interference case led to celebrations, with advisers to the former president “literally popping champagne right now.” According to results of a February 2024 New York Times/Siena College national survey, the Trump team strategy to run out the clock may be having the desired effect on voters. In the national survey, Democrats were 7 percentage points and Independents 9 percentage points less likely to say that they think Trump committed crimes than did so back in December, while Republicans have remained stable.

Whether voters have information matters because the American people might decide differently under varying circumstances. A January survey by Bloomberg and Morning Consult of nearly 5,000 registered voters in the key swing states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin found that 53% who responded said they would be unwilling to vote for Trump if he were convicted of a criminal offense, while 55% said they would be unwilling to do so if he were sentenced to prison. Furthermore, some 20% of voters from those states who had voted for Trump in 2020 said they would be either “somewhat unwilling” or “very unwilling” to vote for him again if he were convicted. Other surveys show similar findings. A February NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist National Poll found that if Trump were convicted on criminal charges, Biden would lead Trump by 6 points, and 1 in 10 Republicans said they would support Biden (the poll otherwise found Biden up by just a point, and several other recent national polls have found Trump leading by a small margin nationally). A Yahoo/YouGov survey fielded at the end of January found that 53% of respondents said that if Trump is convicted of a serious crime, he “should not be allowed” to serve as president again. (Half of respondents in that survey also said that a conviction of a “serious crime” would be a “fair outcome meant to hold him accountable for his actions,” with the usual partisan splits of Republicans more likely to respond that it’s “unfair” and Democrats more likely to say it’s fair.)

Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Trump v. Anderson that Trump can’t be taken off the ballot in the state of Colorado. In a 9-0 ruling, the justices, for differing reasons, said that states cannot bar candidates for the presidency under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a Reconstruction-era amendment that bars insurrectionists from holding office. The majority wrote that, “The Constitution makes Congress, rather than the states, responsible for enforcing Section 3 against federal officeholders and candidates.” To be clear, the Supreme Court did not weigh in on whether Trump had engaged in insurrection, but it held that states cannot enforce the disqualification provisions in Section 3 against insurrectionists running for federal office. Furthermore, the 3 liberal justices—Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson—wrote a concurring opinion disagreeing with the scope of the majority opinion, arguing that it went “beyond the necessities of this case to limit how Section 3 can bar an oathbreaking insurrectionist from becoming President. Although we agree that Colorado cannot enforce Section 3, we protest the majority’s effort to use this case to define the limits of federal enforcement of that provision.” Conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett also issued a separate opinion, agreeing that the majority opinion went too far in the breadth of its judgment, but also chastising the liberal justices that “this is not the time to amplify disagreement with stridency.”

It’s worth noting that before the ruling, a good portion of the public was not attuned to the Trump v. Anderson case and attitudes were 50-50 about whether Trump should remain on the ballot. In a February Marquette University Law School national survey of opinion on the Supreme Court, nearly one-third of respondents said they hadn’t heard anything or hadn’t heard enough to have an opinion about Trump v. Anderson. The survey, which was fielded nearly a month before the decision was announced, found that of those respondents with an opinion, 50% said they favored the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the Colorado decision to disqualify Trump from the ballot, while 50% said they opposed overturning that decision.

So far, much of the media coverage about Trump in this election cycle has focused on his performance in the primaries and caucuses. Now that Nikki Haley has dropped out, the media will likely turn attention to the general election, which might produce more coverage of Trump’s legal problems and potentially more interest from the voting public. Another consequence of the cases is that Trump is, at least at times, spending more time dealing with the trials than he is on the campaign trail. With mounting debt from the $454 million (including interest) he owes the state of New York as a result of civil fraud charges and another $83 million to E. Jean Carroll as a result of defamation (which he is trying to delay), there are some signs that Trump’s small donor base is fatiguing. According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, Trump has experienced a 62.5% drop in small-dollar donations ($200 or less) relative to the 2020 campaign cycle and he is behind President Joe Biden in fundraising for 2024. Furthermore, mega donor funders like Ken Griffin and the Koch Network are turning their fundraising attention to down-ballot contests.

A game-changing, election eve story is known as an “October Surprise,” a term popularized in 1980 around the idea that then-President Jimmy Carter could get American hostages released from Iran as a last-minute success to propel him to reelection. With so much uncertainty surrounding both the timing and the outcomes of Trump’s trials, we shouldn’t be surprised that any one of the major cases could produce an election wild card.

Center for Politics intern Zoe Shook contributed to this article.