Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN
(CNN) — Donald Trump and his legal team are escalating efforts to discredit and delay a trial over his alleged attempt to overturn the 2020 election, as his fight to avert criminal convictions becomes ever more indistinguishable from his presidential campaign.
The former president’s attorney Sunday vowed to petition to relocate the trial from Washington, DC, claiming that a local jury won’t reflects the “characteristics” of the American people. And as prosecutors seek a speedy trial, he warned that his team will seek to run out the process for years in an apparent attempt to move it past the 2024 election.
Trump demanded the judge set to hear the case recuse herself in a flurry of assaults on the process that may fail legally, but will play into his campaign narrative that he is a victim of political persecution by the Biden administration designed to thwart a White House comeback.
Trump pleaded not guilty when he was arraigned in Washington last week – his third such plea in a criminal case in the past four months. But his new efforts to tarnish an eventual trial in this case mirror his long-term strategy of seeking to delegitimize any institution – including the courts, the Justice Department, US intelligence agencies and the press – that contradicts his narrative or challenges his power.
They unfolded as the precarious nature of his position after his third indictment began to sink in and the ramifications for the 2024 election widened.
Mike Pence, speaking on CNN this weekend, did not rule out providing testimony in a Trump trial if compelled, which would be a staggering potential scenario for a vice president to provide evidence against his ex-running mate.
Trump’s former Attorney General William Barr, meanwhile, dismissed one of the arguments the ex-president and his allies have turned to – that he was simply exercising his right to freedom of speech in seeking to reverse the election result in 2020. Barr, who told Trump there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud during his final weeks in office, also said Sunday that “of course” he would appear as a witness at the trial if asked.
Trump’s status as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination has left his rivals with a painful political tightrope walk as they seek to take advantage of his plight while avoiding alienating GOP primary voters. But several candidates stiffened their criticism of the former president over the issue this weekend as campaigning heated up.
Pence said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that in the tense days ahead of Congress’ certification of President Joe Biden’s election, Trump asked him to put loyalty to him above his oath to the Constitution and halt the process. “I’m running for president in part because I think anyone who puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States,” Pence told Dana Bash.
And Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis went a tiny bit further in his criticism of Trump, while still arguing that the Biden administration is weaponizing justice against the former president. On a campaign swing through Iowa on Friday, DeSantis – who is battling to preserve his tottering status as the No. 2 Republican in primary polls – said Trump’s false claims about election fraud were “unsubstantiated.”
The fast-moving developments since Trump’s indictment last week are offering a preview of one of the most monumental criminal trials in American political history. They also suggest this case, and two others in which Trump has pleaded not guilty – to mishandling of classified documents and to charges arising out of a hush money payment to an adult film actress – are certain to deepen a corrosive national political estrangement.
Trump slams prosecutors, judge, Biden administration and GOP senators
Defense teams have the right to use every courtroom mechanism within legal bounds to their client’s best advantage. Attempts to delay trials with pre-trial litigation are not unusual and prosecutors and defense lawyers often differ over matters of procedure and evidence. But Trump’s case is unique, given the visibility of the accused, the fact that he’s a former president running for another White House term, and that he is using his power and fame to mount a vitriolic campaign outside the courtroom to drain public confidence in the justice system. It is becoming increasingly clear that there is no distinction between his legal strategy and his political one in an election that is now consumed by his criminal exposure and the possibility of convictions.
In posts on his Truth Social network that highlighted a furious state of mind, Trump on Sunday demanded the recusal of Judge Tanya Chutkan, an Obama appointee who is presiding over the case, and a venue change out of the capital. He blasted special counsel Jack Smith as “deranged” and claimed that the US was being “destroyed.” On Saturday night, in a speech in South Carolina, Trump demanded that Senate Republicans do more to protect him.
His threatening rhetoric is already having a direct impact on pre-trial preparations as both parties shadow box ahead of a decision by the judge on a trial date.
Smith’s prosecutors asked the court late Friday to impose strict limits on how Trump can publicize evidence that will be handed over as part of the discovery process. Trump’s team sought an extension of a Monday afternoon deadline to file on the matter, but Chutkan refused their request. Prosecutors want the judge to impose a protective order limiting how Trump could use such evidence because of his previous public statements about witnesses, judges, attorneys and others. In their filing, they included a screenshot of a Truth Social post in which Trump warned: “IF YOU GO AFTER ME, I’M COMING AFTER YOU!”
Trump’s lawyer John Lauro argued on “State of the Union” Sunday that the special counsel was seeking to withhold evidence about the case from the press and the American people that “may speak to the innocence of President Trump.”
Barr rejects Trump’s theory of the case
Trump is seeking to delay and prolong the trial so that the country won’t have a final answer on his alleged culpability until after the election. If Trump wins the White House in November 2024, he will again gain access to executive powers and status that could freeze federal prosecutions against him or mitigate any guilty verdicts.
Lauro said on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that he had not known any similar case go to trial within two or three years of an indictment. He also said on other talk show appearances that he planned to relitigate the 2020 election, which he said had never been drawn out in court, as a way of challenging Smith’s charges. Trump, however, made multiple attempts to have the 2020 result overturned in court, and judges repeatedly threw out his claims of voter fraud as having no merit.
Lauro also further revealed his hand on defense strategy by arguing that despite being told multiple times by officials and campaign advisers that he lost the election, Trump’s actions were not criminal since he was convinced he won.
“The defense is quite simple. Donald Trump … believed in his heart of hearts that he had won that election,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “And as any American citizen, he had a right to speak out under the First Amendment. He had a right to petition governments around the country, state governments, based on his grievances that election irregularities had occurred.”
But Barr, a conservative Republican who had been a staunch Trump defender until the very end of his administration, said that while Smith’s case was certainly “challenging,” he didn’t think it “runs afoul of the First Amendment.”
Trump’s prospective defense raises the possibility that any future politician could create an alternative reality that bears no relation to the facts of an election outcome, and then take actions designed to retain power.
Barr sought to clear up what he said was confusion about the case. “This involved a situation where the states had already made the official and authoritative determination as to who won in those states, and they sent the votes and certified them to Congress,” Barr said on “Face the Nation.”
“The allegation, essentially, by the government is that, at that point, the president conspired, entered into a plan, a scheme that involved a lot of deceit, the object of which was to erase those votes, to nullify those lawful votes.”
Another claim by Trump’s team being amplified on conservative media is that the former president cannot get a fair trial in Washington, where he won only 5% of the vote in the 2020 election. Lauro instead suggested one of the most pro-Trump states in the union, where the ex-president racked up nearly 70% of votes cast in the last election. “I think West Virginia would be an excellent venue to try this case,” he said on CBS.
Most legal experts think a change of venue is unlikely. Such a step would implicitly strike at the heart of the legal system since it would suggest that verdicts and juries in one jurisdiction are more valid than those elsewhere and could set a precedent that politicians could choose juries in politically advantageous regions.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, one of the handful of Republicans running for the 2024 nomination on an explicitly anti-Trump platform, insisted that Trump could get a fair trial in the nation’s capital.
“I believe jurors can be fair. I believe in the American people,” Christie said on “State of the Union.”
Christie, a former federal prosecutor in a blue state, also rejected the argument that Trump’s post-election conduct is protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. He argued that proof of Trump’s culpability lies in his failure to immediately seek to stop the ransacking of the US Capitol by his supporters during the certification of Biden’s victory on January 6, 2021.
“He didn’t do that. He sat, ate his overdone hamburger in the White House Dining Room he has off the Oval Office and enjoyed watching what was going on,” Christie said.
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