As former President Donald J. Trump campaigns for the White House while multiple criminal prosecutions are pending against him, at least one thing is clear: Under the laws of physics, he cannot be in two places at once.
Generally, criminal defendants must attend in the courtroom during their trials. That will not only force Mr. Trump off the campaign trail, possibly for weeks at a time, but the judges overseeing his trials must also jostle for position on back-to-back dates. The collision course raises extraordinary – and unprecedented – questions about the logistical, legal and political challenges of various trials unfolding against the backdrop of a presidential campaign.
“The courts will have to decide how to balance the public interest in having speedy trials against Trump’s interest and the public interest in his being able to campaign to make the democratic process work,” said Bruce Green, a Fordham University professor and former prosecutor. “That’s a type of complexity that courts have never had to deal with before.”
More broadly, the complications highlight another reality: Mr. Trump’s problems entangle the campaign with the courts to a degree the nation has never experienced before and raise tensions around the ideal of keeping the justice system separate from politics.
Mr. Trump and his allies have signaled that they intend to try to turn his overlapping legal problems into a referendum on the criminal justice system, seeking to cast it as a political weapon of Democrats.
Already, Mr. Trump faces a state trial on civil fraud charges in New York in October. Another lawsuit over whether he defamed the writer E. Jean Carroll opens on January 15 – the same day as the Iowa caucuses. On January 29, trial begins in yet another lawsuit, this one accusing Mr. Trump, his company and three of his children of using the family name to lure vulnerable people into investing in bogus business opportunities.
Because those cases are civil, Mr. Trump could choose not to attend the trials, just as he avoided Ms. Carroll’s earlier trial, in which a jury found him guilty of sexual abuse.
But he won’t have that option in a criminal case because of allegations in New York that he falsified business records as part of a cover-up of a sex scandal shortly before the 2016 election. The opening date of that trial, which will most likely last several weeks, is at the end of March, about three weeks after Super Tuesday, when more than a dozen states vote on March 5.
Jack Smith, the special counsel leading two federal investigations into Mr. Trump, asked the judge overseeing the indictment in the criminal investigation into Mr. Trump’s hoarding of sensitive documents to set a trial date for late 2023.
But on Tuesday — the same day Mr. Trump revealed that federal prosecutors may indict him in the investigation into the events that culminated in the Capitol riot — his defense lawyers argued to Judge Aileen M. Cannon that she should delay any trial in the documentary case until after the 2024 election. The intense publicity of the campaign calendar, they said, would damage his rights.
Mr. Trump has long followed a strategy of delay in legal matters, seeking to run out the clock. If he can push his federal trial — or convictions, if he’s ultimately charged in the Jan. 6 probe — past the 2024 election, it’s possible he or another Republican could win the presidency and order the Justice Department to remove the cases
A president lacks the authority to overturn state cases, but even if Mr. Trump were convicted, any inevitable appeals would most likely still be pending before Inauguration Day in 2025. If he’s back in office by then, the Justice Department could, too. raise constitutional challenges to try to delay any additional legal proceedings, such as a prison sentence, while he is the sitting president.
In arguing for a delay in sentencing until after the election, Mr. Trump’s defense lawyers argued on Tuesday that Mr. Trump had effectively argued in court against his 2024 rival, President Biden.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen in the primaries, of course, but right now, he’s the front-runner,” said Todd Blanche, one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers. “And if everything goes as we expect, the person he’s running against — his administration is going after him.”
But David Harbach, a prosecutor on Mr. Smith’s team, said Mr. Trump was “no different than any other busybody who has been indicted.” He called the claim of political influence “completely false”, apparently more intended for “the court of public opinion” than a court.
“The attorney general appointed the special counsel to clear this investigation of political influence, and there was no one — no one,” he said.
Judge Cannon, who has not yet made a decision on the eventual sentencing date, indicated that in considering a delay, she believed the focus should be not on the campaign but on legal issues, such as the volume and complexity of confidential evidence.
Setting a trial date for the documentary case is the first and most basic logistical issue. But the possibility of indictments from two investigations into Mr. Trump’s attempts to stay in power after the 2020 election, the federal probe led by Mr. Smith and a state probe overseen by Fani T. Willis, a district attorney in Georgia, who signaled that. charges could come in august, may soon strike against that.
There is no overriding authority that acts like an air traffic controller when multiple judges decide on dates that could conflict. Nor are there rules that give priority to federal or state cases or that say any case that was charged first should go to trial first.
Brandon L. Van Grack, a former prosecutor who worked on the Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, pointed to that investigation as an example. Prosecutors filed charges against Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, in two jurisdictions, first in the District of Columbia and then in the Eastern District of Virginia, but the trials took place in reverse order.
“There was sensitivity to hearing dates, and required counsel to educate both judges about the scheduling and conflicts, but there was no rule that said the matter from the District of Columbia was charged first and therefore went to trial first,” he said. said “It’s a judicial discretion.”
As an informal practice, Mr. Green said, judges overseeing potentially conflicting cases sometimes call each other and work out a calendar. No procedural rule authorizes such conversations, he said, but it is considered appropriate.
Above Mr. Trump’s legal jeopardy is an unwritten Justice Department standard known as the 60-day rule. As a primary or general election approaches, prosecutors should not take overt actions that could improperly influence voting.
However, it is not clear how that principle applies to matters that are already public and therefore less likely to change the image of a candidate. In particular, Raymond Hulser, a veteran prosecutor who was consulted for years on how to apply the 60 day ruleis a member of Mr. Smith’s team.
Further complicating matters, Mr. Trump hired some of the same defense lawyers to handle multiple investigations against him, leaving them stretched for time.
Christopher Kise, another lawyer for Mr. Trump, cited the former president’s packed legal calendar at the hearing on Tuesday. Not only did Mr. Kise indicate that he would have to prepare for the fraud trials in October and January, but he also pointed to Mr. Blanche’s role in the criminal trial in March involving falsified business records in New York.
“So these are the same lawyers dealing with the same client, trying to prepare for the same type of exercises, and so I think that’s very important,” Mr. Kise said.
Several legal experts said that while people have a Sixth Amendment right to choose their legal representation, it is not absolute. They noted that judges could tell defendants that, if their designated attorneys are too busy to take on more cases in a timely manner, they should hire others.
Such an order would give Mr. Trump something more to complain about to an appeals court, said Professor Green, who added, “I think it’s probably a losing argument.”
Alan Feuer contributed reporting from Fort Pierce, Fla.