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With Trump set to return to court, his delaying strategy is working so far

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

(CNN) — Donald Trump looks like he’s succeeding in running out the clock.

The former president’s common strategy across his four criminal trials is to use the constitutional protections granted by a legal system he claims is corrupt to push the moment he will stand before a jury until after the election in November.

Trump has long been an expert in tying the courts in knots by exhausting every single avenue of appeal – often using fanciful legal strategies that nevertheless take time to litigate – to postpone accountability.

The technique will be on display on Thursday when Trump’s lawyers challenge the legality of special counsel Jack Smith’s case against the presumptive Republican nominee over his hoarding of classified documents at his Florida resort, with Trump expected to be in attendance.

Judge Aileen Cannon will hear Trump’ motions seeking the dismissal of the case, partly based on his argument that he was entitled to take classified documents to his residence. He is also claiming that he is the victim of selective prosecution and was treated differently than other senior officials who had classified material – like President Joe Biden – despite clear differences in their cases. And, as in other courtroom dramas, he’s making a sweeping claim of presidential immunity in keeping with his apparent belief that the nation’s highest office put him above the law.

Cannon is also currently weighing a postponement of the late May start to the trial that would play into Trump’s attempts to prevent it from beginning before November.

Not for the first time, a real sense of frustration seeped into Smith’s legal filings in the case last week. He asked Cannon to throw out what he called the former president’s “frivolous” arguments, saying, the “immunity claim here is so wholly without merit that it is difficult to understand it except as part of a strategic effort for delay.”

Frustration has also been growing with Cannon, a Trump-appointed judge who critics argue has been enabling the ex-president’s schemes with the stately pace at which she is conducting pre-trial business. As in all his criminal cases, Trump has pleaded not guilty.

A win for Trump in Georgia

The hearing in Fort Pierce, Florida, takes place a day after Trump notched a legal win in a separate matter – the election interference case in Georgia. The judge dismissed six charges in the 41-count indictment related to Trump and some co-defendants, saying the charges lacked required detail on the underlying alleged crime – pressing the state legislature and officials to overturn the 2020 election. The decision was a blow to Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, even though Judge Scott McAfee left most of the racketeering indictment intact. Trump now faces 88 – rather than 91 – criminal charges across four cases.

McAfee has been busy even though any trial is not expected for months. He is expected to announce his decision by Friday on whether to disqualify Willis from the case on the grounds of an alleged conflict of interest regarding a romantic relationship with an attorney she hired to help her prosecute the case. A decision to bar Willis would be a massive victory for Trump since it would rule out the entire Fulton County district attorney’s office and could see the case pass to another jurisdiction. Such a step would almost certainly add further delays to a complex case, likely pushing it into next year at least.

Trump’s efforts to run out the clock on his federal election trial are also bearing fruit. His use of his right to extensive appeals has already taken up many weeks, and the Supreme Court’s decision to hear his extraordinary claims of presidential immunity is severely threatening Smith’s hopes of trying the case this year. The high court will not even hear arguments on the case until next month and a decision on the matter may not come until the end of June. If the justices don’t side with Trump’s claim that he cannot be prosecuted, and Smith’s case moves forward, time will still be extremely tight to get it on the docket this year. Judge Tanya Chutkan could face a fateful decision on whether to go ahead in the frenetic closing months of the general election campaign.

One trial that does look set to open soon, on March 25, is potentially the least damaging one to the former president. The New York criminal case involves a hush money payment to a former adult film actress. But even here, Trump has been trying his delaying tactics. He wants the judge to push back the trial until after the Supreme Court rules on his presidential immunity case. This seems a long shot since the hush money payment was made before the 2016 election and before Trump took office. But the prosecution plans to bring in some evidence in the form of Twitter posts that he made while he was in the Oval Office, offering an opening – albeit a narrow one – to Trump’s attorneys.

Why the credibility of the legal system depends on due process

Trump’s motivation in delaying the trials is not just to put off his multiple days of judgment. He appears to want to also forestall jury verdicts until after the general election – likely because polls have suggested some voters would be less keen to vote for him if he is a convicted felon. But if he wins in November, Trump might regain the executive powers to stop the two federal cases against him – over the classified documents and election interference – or overturn any convictions.

That possibility has frustrated many Democrats and legal analysts who hope voters will have the chance to take the measure of Trump’s culpability and any convictions before the election.

At the same time, however, the ex-president is taking advantage of all the channels of appeal and pre-trial motions that would be available to any other American – even if the crush of indictments and trials would be unusual for anyone to face, let alone an ex-president running to get his old job back.

Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin argued that while Trump’s motives are transparent, the integrity of the legal system that the former president has long sought to subvert rests on sticking to constitutional principles.

“If you are a walking crime wave like Donald Trump, you can trample every criminal, civil, disciplinary, ethical boundary you want and then you know that it’s going to take time for the justice system to catch up with you,” Raskin, who served on the House committee that investigated the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, told CNN’s Manu Raju on Wednesday. “But that’s in the nature of the justice system, based on due process, but we’ve got to stick by the rule of law. It’s all we’ve got.”

Former Georgia state Sen. Jen Jordan, a Democrat, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that in the case of the Peach State indictment against Trump and the fate of Willis, the judge was doing his due diligence in order to ensure the integrity and efficiency of the trial.

“Of course, it’s going to push it back,” Jordan said Wednesday. “What he is concerned with is to make sure that the indictment is bullet proof in terms of any appellant issue that may be brought up in the future.”

While Trump’s slow walking has so far succeeded in the criminal cases, his recent and heavy blows in the civil legal system prove that while accountability can be delayed, it cannot always be denied. He already owes half a billion dollars to satisfy two recent court losses – a civil fraud trial related to the Trump Organization and a defamation case brought by the writer E. Jean Carroll.

If several of the criminal cases go against him as well, if and when they eventually come to trial, Trump could face a very grim future if he loses November’s election.

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