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Supreme Court decision delays Trump trial

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It's time for Trump's Trials.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) We love Trump. We love Trump.

DONALD TRUMP: This is a persecution.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He actually just stormed out of the courtroom.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Mr. President...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

DETROW: It was another eventful week in the world of Trump's Trials. The U.S. Supreme Court decided to take up the question of whether or not former President Donald Trump is immune from prosecution for alleged crimes committed while in office. The court will hear arguments in late April. A ruling, however, might not come until June, which means the January 6 federal election interference case may not go to trial before the presidential election later this year.

Meanwhile, there was a pretrial hearing on Friday in the Florida classified documents case, and a lot of important issues were discussed, including pushing back the start date. So far, Judge Aileen Cannon has not officially done so. Still, it's pretty unlikely that they will stick to that May start date that's still on paper. Earlier, I spoke with my colleague, senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro, as well as law professor Kim Wehle about all of this. And I started by asking Wehle for her take on why the classified documents case has been moving slower than expected.

KIM WEHLE: One legitimate reason and one probably less legitimate possible reason - the legitimate reason being that this involves classified information, and there is a federal law called the Classified Information Procedures Act, or CIPA, that has a bunch of procedural steps that have to be implemented and followed to make sure that national security and classified information doesn't get inadvertently certainly disclosed during a criminal trial.

And in this particular trial, given that the one of the defendants is Donald Trump and he has a penchant for using the - his social media voice to bully witnesses, members of the court staff, etc., I think there's a heightened concern on DOJ's side to make sure that this case about stealing classified information doesn't involve more disclosure of classified information, so that's taken some time.

The, I think, less favorable view of things in terms of this particular judge who is a Trump appointee, is that she's slow-walking it for the benefit of the - of Donald Trump and unnecessarily just putting up procedural roadblocks because with all of these cases - in particular, the two federal cases - Donald Trump's best friend is delay, delay, delay because on the merits - that is, the facts and the law - his case is pretty weak.

DETROW: So, Kim, let's shift to the bigger, I think, more consequential delay from this week. And that is the Supreme Court hearing arguments on this big question of immunity. Look. A lot of people saw that appeals court decision on immunity as pretty substantial, as pretty airtight. It seems like there's a lot of arguments that if it were any other question, the Supreme Court would have let that ruling stand. Why do you think the Supreme Court decided to take this up?

WEHLE: You know, I wasn't one of the people that thought, oh, they won't touch it, for, again, one legitimate reason and one less legitimate reason.

DETROW: It's a theme.

WEHLE: The legitimate reason is that there is no precedent whatsoever for immunity for presidents for criminal liability. And so I think what the court might be interested in doing - and it looks, like from the question presented, a very broad question they put in their order - saying, you know, is there immunity, criminal immunity for presidents? They might want to tinker with the boundaries of that on the theory that we don't want a situation where presidents order drone strikes, someone - an American's inadvertently killed, and then presidents are worried they're going to be criminally prosecuted by a president from the other political party when they're a private citizen.

The sort of less nice reason for this is that the conservatives on the court are slow-walking this. The fact that they're dragging this out is really a travesty. It's going to hurt, and it should hurt, frankly, the legitimacy of the court itself. They don't need to do this. And they could be, you know, basically thwarting the ability of the American people to get a ruling by a jury on the merits beyond a reasonable doubt based on facts that get through, you know, the gatekeepers of the federal rules of evidence, the gold standard fact-finding where a third of, you know, Iowa voters said - Republican voters - if he gets convicted of a felony, I will not pull the lever for him in November. The fact that they're possibly denying that to the American public is really a travesty.

DETROW: I just have a hard time seeing the Supreme Court not thinking about the election timeline and what it would mean to have this question unresolved before voters decide. I just have a very hard time seeing that not being a top-of-mind question.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: We're going to have, essentially, if there's even a trial in these cases, right in the heart of the general election - which Trump's lawyers are going to argue and have already signaled they're going to argue that that's election interference, that you can't have a trial that close to an election and that that's the problem. But now, at the same...

DETROW: Even though they're the ones trying to delay it. Yeah.

MONTANARO: No. I - right. This is their fault. I mean, I would argue that this is the Trump team's fault for doing this because they're trying to push this case over the edge. They could have had a trial, you know, months ago if they wanted a, quote-unquote, "speedy trial," which is one that's there for a defendant, not necessarily for the rest of us who want to see a speedy trial.

DETROW: Yeah.

WEHLE: But let's talk about, you know, Justice Clarence Thomas. You know, his wife texted Mark Meadows over two dozen times during the January 6 riot and, you know, reportedly was pushing for him to get Vice President Mike Pence to thwart the election results. This is a person who is going to be - is now currently deciding whether the case goes forward against Donald Trump in a meaningful way, or whether it's dragged beyond November so he could cancel the whole thing if he's in charge of the Justice Department. I mean, that's an actual conflict of interest in the theory that - is he trying, you know, worst-case scenario, to protect his wife?

DETROW: Right. Now, Thomas, you know, did not recuse himself from the case. The court recently heard about whether or not states can kick Trump off the ballot for engaging in insurrection. He has given no indication he would recuse himself from here. Domenico, we were talking about this, though, the other day, and you had an interesting pushback on this Thomas question.

MONTANARO: Well, I mean, look. There's certainly a question about whether it's appropriate for Thomas to be on this case, given how intimately involved, you know, his wife was in these efforts and communications about overturning the election. I mean, on the other hand, she's not her husband, right? And we haven't seen texts involving him. And, you know, frankly, if everyone in D.C. was responsible for what their spouse does, no one would go to work, probably, because it's such a tight-knit place. I understand what the pushback here is, but I think that that's what the other side of the argument is when it comes to this.

DETROW: That's Kim Wehle, a constitutional expert and law professor at the University of Baltimore. Thanks for joining us.

WEHLE: Thanks for having me.

DETROW: And, Domenico Montanaro, thanks, as always, for hanging out on a Saturday.

MONTANARO: As always. Always fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.