There appeared to be little room for maneuver last week when the federal judge overseeing the impeachment of former President Donald J. Trump on charges of conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election stayed the case while an appeals court considered Trump's claims that he was immune. to prosecution.
Judge Tanya S. Chutkan's decision effectively froze the matter, suspending all of its deadlines and jeopardizing the start date of the trial, which is scheduled to begin March 4 in U.S. District Court in Washington.
But even the force of the judge's order has failed to stop prosecutors in special counsel Jack Smith's office from trying to push the case, or to stop Trump's lawyers from complaining about their efforts.
On Monday night, prosecutors working for Smith notified Judge Chutkan that they had sent Trump's legal team a draft list of evidence they intend to use in the trial. They acknowledged, however, that the deadline to present the list had been “suspended.”
The list of evidence had been turned over to the defense, prosecutors wrote, “to help ensure that the trial moves forward quickly if and when” the case is back in action.
Hours later, shortly before midnight, Trump's legal team responded to the government's filing with an angry two-page brief to Judge Chutkan complaining about how prosecutors had “improperly and illegally attempted to move this case forward.” in violation of the pause.
The attorneys told Judge Chutkan that prosecutors had not only sent them the list of offending evidence, but had also illicitly provided them with thousands of pages of additional discovery materials.
His filing contained a copy of an email that John F. Lauro, one of Trump's top lawyers, had written to two of Smith's top deputies, Thomas P. Windom and Molly Gaston.
In the email, Lauro, in politely scathing terms, accused the special counsel's office of simply ignoring Judge Chutkan's order in an effort to “rush this case to an early and unconstitutional trial.” He put his foot down, telling prosecutors that the defense would not “accept or review the current production or any additional production” of discovery materials “until the court lifts the stay order.”
It is still unclear what Judge Chutkan might do about the dispute, beyond reminding everyone involved that they are not supposed to move pieces on the chess board while the game is suspended. In theory, he could hold anyone who violates his order in contempt, but it's more likely that he would ask both parties to behave well with each other in the meantime.
Whichever direction it takes, the back-and-forth between the parties reflects how seriously both feel about the timing of the election interference case.
Smith's team has been pushing for the trial before the heart of the 2024 campaign season begins this summer, hoping to avoid a head-on collision between the legal proceedings and a presidential election in which Trump is one of the main candidates.
Trump's lawyers are doing everything they can to delay the trial for as long as possible. If the proceedings can be postponed until after the election and Trump wins the race, he would have the power to order the charges against him to be dropped.
At the center of that fight is Trump's argument that he is immune from election interference charges because they arose from actions he took while in office.
A few weeks ago, Judge Chutkan rejected those claims and Trump challenged her decision before a federal appeals court in Washington. Mr. Smith then asked the Supreme Court to consider the issue directly in a move designed to expedite the appeal. He also got the lower appeals court to hear the issue on an expedited parallel track.
Both challenges will move forward this week when Trump's lawyers file papers (due Wednesday) with the Supreme Court in an effort to prevent the justices from taking up the case.
On Saturday, Trump's legal team plans to present its formal brief on the immunity issue to the federal appeals court.
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