Political Speech

Trump Attorney Says Trial During Presidential Campaign Would Be ‘Election Interference’

Former U.S. President Donald Trump campaigns in Derry, New Hampshire
Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Derry, New Hampshire, U.S., Oct. 23, 2023. (Reuters/Amanda Sabga)

By The Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) — An attorney for former President Donald Trump said Friday it would amount to “election interference” if his client is the Republican nominee for president while on trial in Georgia in the months running up to the general election.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee opened the door for discussion on trial timing while considering requests by two of the former president’s co-defendants to delay certain pretrial deadlines. But he said he didn’t plan to make any immediate decisions on a trial date.

District Attorney Fani Willis last month asked that all defendants remaining in the case — currently Trump and 14 others — be tried together beginning Aug. 5. Prosecutors have previously estimated it would take them four months to present their case, not including jury selection. That would mean the trial would be underway during the final months of the election campaign.

“Can you imagine the notion of the Republican nominee for president not being able to to campaign for the presidency because he is, in some form or fashion, in a courtroom defending himself?” Sadow said during the Friday hearing, later adding, “That would be the most effective election interference in the history of the United States.”

Prosecutor Nathan Wade rejected that idea.

“This trial does not constitute election interference,” he said, later adding, “This is moving forward with the business of Fulton County. I don’t think that it in any way impedes defendant Trump’s ability to campaign or whatever he needs to do in order to seek office.”

A Fulton County grand jury in August indicted Trump and 18 others, accusing them of participating in a wide-ranging scheme to illegally try to overturn the result of the 2020 election and to keep Trump in power even though he had lost to Democrat Joe Biden. Four defendants have already pleaded guilty after reaching deals with prosecutors. The remaining 15, including Trump, have pleaded not guilty.

Trump is the early front-runner for the Republican nomination for president. Sadow also noted that his client has three other criminal trials set for next year — federal cases in Washington and Florida and a state case in New York — and said that could also preclude an August trial date. Sadow suggested that a trial date not be set right now to allow time to see how things play out.

Asked by the judge whether Trump could be tried in 2025 if he were to be elected president next November, Sadow said he believes that the U.S. Constitution’s supremacy clause and the presidential duties would mean that he could not be tried until he was out of office.

Willis had also asked the judge to set a final plea date of June 21, writing that prosecutors would consider plea deals up until that date and intend to recommend the maximum penalties at any sentencing hearings after that. McAfee said Friday he wasn’t sure that was necessary, that the district attorney could independently set a date after which she wouldn’t consider plea deals.

Attorney Buddy Parker, who represents lawyer John Eastman, told the judge his client is concerned about the possibility of a trial date being set in 2025, saying that would mean it was more than a year that his case would be pending.

“There are a number of defendants, as noted, who are not running for the presidency of the United States,” Parker said, adding that his client would like to be tried separately from Trump because of the complications involved and would even be in favor of going to trial before August.

Prosecutors have consistently said they want to have one trial in the case, citing efficiency and fairness. McAfee has previously expressed skepticism at bringing more than a dozen defendants to trial at once and he reiterated that doubt on Friday.

He said it’s more likely that the defendants would be split into two groups and prosecutors would have the right to determine who’s in the first group to be tried. If someone in the first group were to reach a plea before trial, then someone from the second group would be substituted in, he said.

The discussion of timing came up while McAfee was hearing arguments on requests by Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and former U.S. Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark’s requests to delay the deadline for each of them to file pretrial motions. They are both trying to have their cases moved to federal court. A federal judge has rejected those requests, but they have both appealed.

The motions deadline for all defendants is Jan. 8. McAfee agreed to postpone that deadline to Feb. 1 for Meadows and Clark.

During the hours-long Friday hearing, McAfee also heard arguments on a slew of other defense motions, many challenging all or part of the indictment on various grounds. Defense attorneys argued that a group of Republicans who met at the state Capitol in December 2020 and signed certificates saying they were the state’s presidential electors acted properly. And they argued that the actions alleged in the indictment amount to political speech that the First Amendment protects.

Sadow also said he plans to file a motion asserting presidential immunity for Trump, who was in office when most of the actions alleged in the indictment took place. And Sadow told the judge he wants to seek subpoenas for lists of evidence produced in the case brought against Trump by Department of Justice special counsel Jack Smith to see if any of it is relevant to the Georgia case.