‘Speedy trial’? The Jan. 6 Trump case is a race against time

Special counsel Jack Smith and Donald Trump

Special counsel Jack Smith and Donald Trump. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images, Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Special counsel Jack Smith kept his remarks brief Tuesday when announcing the indictment of former President Donald Trump for conspiring to overturn the 2020 election.

But one thing Smith did say is that he would “seek a speedy trial.”

The reason is obvious: If Trump’s trial is not resolved before the next president is elected, and if the next president is Trump, he can (and almost certainly will) force his handpicked attorney general to dismiss the charges against him — forever.

So how likely is it that a jury will reach a verdict in the Jan. 6 case before Election Day 2024?

Smith has a few factors working in his favor. The first is that the trial will be taking place in Washington, D.C., where judges already tend to move quickly. The second is that the district judge who has been randomly assigned to the case, Tanya Chutkan, tends to move faster than most; she will announce a trial date at Trump’s next hearing on Aug. 28. And the third is that the no-nonsense Chutkan has previously issued tough sentences for Jan. 6 rioters — and even ruled against Trump in a separate Jan. 6 case — so she is unlikely to let Trump’s team drag things out.

Yet Smith also faces several timing challenges. Election Day, it’s worth noting, is less than 16 months away. But according to federal statistics as of Dec. 31, 2022, the median time it takes for a criminal felony case to be completed in the D.C. District Court is nearly 18 months. And that number includes cases in which the defendant pleads guilty, significantly accelerating the process.

Trump’s crowded legal calendar could also be a factor. His Manhattan hush-money trial is set to begin in March; his federal documents trial is set to begin in May. As a criminal defendant, Trump is required to be in the courtroom — physically — for both. Later this summer, he is likely to be charged in Georgia with election interference and, possibly, racketeering.

Add all of these potential conflicts to the fact that “district court judges in Washington have been inundated by so many Jan. 6 cases … that their calendars are often booked for months and, in some cases, more than a year in advance,” as the New York Times recently reported, and you start to see how the timetable for Trump’s Jan. 6 trial could end up being less “speedy” than Smith hopes.

The pile-up of Trump trials will also present problems for his team. As former House Judiciary Committee counsel Michael Conway explained earlier this week, “Trump’s lawyers will raise realistic objections to demands that they meet stringent deadlines for pre-trial discovery, motion practice, and trial preparation for four felony cases in four jurisdictions with only minimal overlapping of facts, witnesses and legal issues.”

In fact, the jockeying over timing has already begun. “Why don’t we make it equal?” one of Trump’s lawyers, John Lauro, told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie Wednesday. “The bottom line is that they have 60 federal agents working on this, 60 lawyers, all kinds of government personnel. And we get this indictment, and they want to go to trial in 90 days? Does that sound like justice to you?”

Ultimately, Judge Chutkan will decide which of Trump’s objections are substantive — and which are merely strategic. Time, as they say, will tell.

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