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Federal prosecutors will seek a January trial date for ex-President Trump

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some Republicans have been looking for an alternative to Donald Trump. And then, at a presidential debate with eight alternatives, the candidate who grabbed the most attention was the guy who acted the most like Trump. We have some analysis in a moment. But first, the original Trump has a court hearing today.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The ex-president tried to overturn his well-documented defeat in the 2020 presidential election. The question for the court is whether his failed effort qualifies as a crime. District court Judge Tanya Chutkan will rule on whether this trial about the last presidential election should be held before the next one.

INSKEEP: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following the story. Carrie, good morning.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is the possible range of dates for a trial?

JOHNSON: It's a huge range, Steve. Trump's lawyers have asked for this trial in D.C. to take place in April 2026. They're citing 11 million pages of documents and other evidence they need to sift through. They've compared it in court papers to the height of the Washington Monument and reading the book "War And Peace" multiple times. But prosecutor Molly Gaston says that's just silly. She says many of these pages are duplicates. Some already came out through the House Select Committee investigation last year. And the special counsel team says it's ready for trial in January 2024. Ultimately, the decision will be up to Judge Tanya Chutkan.

INSKEEP: Well, how does she approach this case, as best you can determine?

JOHNSON: You know, I've interviewed about six people for a profile of her, and they felt certain she would schedule Trump's D.C. trial for next year well before the presidential election. The judge is very comfortable in the courtroom. She had about 40 trials as a lawyer, mostly during her time as a public defender. Friends say she's going to keep the defendant's rights, Donald Trump's rights, at the top of her mind. But she's pretty no-nonsense and is not going to be a fan of delay. Here's what her longtime friend Karl Racine told me.

KARL RACINE: The judge has made very clear that she wants to move this case in a way that doesn't compromise fairness and justice for the defendant.

JOHNSON: Another legal source told me he thought the trial might be scheduled for the first four months of next year, meaning that it could end well before the Republican National Convention next summer.

INSKEEP: You know, Trump has made such striking statements on social media that I'm surprised we have not already heard back from the judge about them, because didn't she warn Trump's lawyers not to make inflammatory or threatening statements?

JOHNSON: She absolutely did. Judge Chutkan says she's not issuing a gag order against Trump, but she's already said his First Amendment rights must yield in some respects. So there's going to be no intimidation of witnesses or statements that pollute the D.C. jury pool. The judge has said if Trump violates those rules, she may move the trial date up to prevent additional damage to witnesses and prospective jurors. But in reality, Steve, it's going to be hard for her to fashion a punishment for Trump. Since he's running for the White House again, is she really going to fine him or lock him up pending trial? We all know Trump is likely to test the limits of the judiciary just like he has done with the executive branch.

INSKEEP: So if this trial is months away, at best, what happens in the meantime?

JOHNSON: A bunch of motions, fighting on paper - a little boring maybe, but very important. The former president has signaled he might try to get some of the evidence thrown out before trial. He also might try to move the case to a place like West Virginia. But here in D.C., it's really hard to do that before jury selection even begins. Most judges here find they can come up with an impartial jury using a special questionnaire and some back-and-forth. Some of these motions might aim to delay this case - a favorite tactic, we know, of Donald Trump - but over nine years on the bench, Judge Tanya Chutkan can anticipate many of those moves.

INSKEEP: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks as always for your insights.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. 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.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.