On the Week Trump’s Florida Trial Was Scheduled to Start, Uncertainty and a Pre-Trial Hearing

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Walt Nauta with former president Donald Trump at the Waldorf Astoria hotel on Jan. 9 in Washington.

FORT PIERCE, Fla. – Donald Trump’s classified-documents trial was supposed to begin with jury selection here this week. It is the case that Trump’s attorneys have been the most worried about, according to people familiar with internal conversations, with prosecutors offering evidence that a former president who is running to hold the office again took sensitive government documents from the White House and obstructed officials’ attempts to retrieve them.

But earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Aileen M. Cannon indefinitely postponed the trial. And instead of Trump sitting at the defense table for the first week of trial, Cannon on Wednesday held two hearings on long-shot requests from a Trump co-defendant to dismiss the case.

An attorney for Trump aide Waltine “Walt” Nauta – who is still employed by the former president – argued in the morning session that the prosecution against him is vindictive and selective because others helped move boxes of Trump’s documents at Mar-a-Lago, the former president’s Florida home and private club, and were not charged. In the afternoon, he argued that the case should be dismissed because prosecutors failed to clearly lay out in the indictment the laws that the defendants are accused of breaking.

“On its face, the indictment is confusing and prejudicial to Mr. Nauta,” defense attorney Stanley Woodward told Cannon.

Wednesday’s hearings underscored Cannon’s willingness to delve into the legal minutiae that has dragged out the former president’s case – while keeping an eye on a future trial.

She peppered the government with questions over its use of grand juries in D.C. and South Florida, and she later asked about legal language employed in several counts on the indictment that include both Trump and Nauta. She described the language as unusual and worried one day jurors might be confused. “Real people have to decide these issues,” Cannon said.

Cannon did not rule on either of the motions argued by Nauta’s attorney on Wednesday.

Nauta is accused of taking dozens of boxes from a Mar-a-Lago storage room to Trump’s residential quarters as investigators sought to retrieve all classified documents from the property, and then plotting to delete security footage to obstruct the investigation. He has pleaded not guilty to the eight charges against him.

When delaying the trial, Cannon said she needed more time to deal with pretrial motions and complicated issues involving presenting highly classified evidence. But legal experts say the judge has let decisions on dismissal requests and other motions pile up for months – including those from Nauta – potentially delaying the trial beyond the 2024 presidential election.

Trump faces 40 federal charges in the case, including willful retention of national defense information, obstruction and false statements. He has been charged separately in three other criminal cases and faces closing arguments and jury deliberations next week in one of them: the New York hush money and business record falsification case, in which Trump is accused of falsifying business records in connection with a hush money payment to an adult-film actress ahead of the 2016 election.

Trump’s other two cases – a state election interference case in Georgia and a federal election interference case in D.C. – are stalled, and it is uncertain whether they or the Florida case will go to trial before voters head to the polls in November.

The former president has pleaded not guilty to the 88 charges in all four criminal cases.

The federal election interference case in the District is on pause while the Supreme Court weighs Trump’s claim that presidential immunity from criminal prosecutions extends to his alleged efforts to reverse the results of his 2020 election loss to Joe Biden. That decision will come by late June or early July; depending on how the justices rule, that case may be the most likely to go to trial before the election, legal experts say.

“We are all in a wait-and-see game,” said Anthony Coley, former top spokesman at the Justice Department under Attorney General Merrick Garland. “It’s still quite possible the D.C. case starts. We’re all waiting on the Supreme Court to decide.”

Coley and other legal analysts have accused Cannon of unnecessarily slowing down the Florida case.

On individual rulings, she has so far generally sided with the government. She rejected two of Trump’s motions to dismiss the case and ruled for prosecutors on key decisions related to how classified information is handled at trial, issues that could have changed the contours and direction of the legal proceedings. She has also rejected two dismissal motions from Nauta and Carlos De Oliveira, the Mar-a-Lago property manager who is accused along with Nauta of plotting to delete the security footage.

But when it comes to timing, Cannon’s decisions have hobbled prosecutors’ efforts to move forward quickly. Special counsel Jack Smith has said in court filings that he wants the Florida trial to happen before the election, citing urgent public interest, but prosecutors have not explicitly argued that the November election is an event they are considering.

Defense attorneys typically file as many dismissal motions as they can, deploying every possible strategy to get a case delayed or dismissed. Trump’s team has especially relied on that approach. Legal experts say that Cannon’s decision to hold hearings on so many dismissal motions is unusual – she has scheduled several more for June and July – and note that judges typically rule on many of these motions, including those that are the focus of Wednesday’s hearings, without holding such sessions.

At the two-hour morning hearing, Woodward insisted that his client was charged with obstruction because he would not testify during a grand jury proceeding.

“When he refused to cooperate, they retaliated against him,” Woodward said.

Even Woodward seemed to realize that such an argument was unlikely to lead to the case being dismissed, conceding that it didn’t make much sense to bring the issue up at this point in the pretrial proceedings. Prosecutor David Harbach said Woodward had come “nowhere close” to proving prosecutors acted vindictively.

“Show me somebody who has done all [that Nauta is accused of] and I’ll show you somebody who is indicted,” Harbach said.

Woodward spent much of his time in front of Cannon asking that she force prosecutors to turn over emails and communications about him – not Nauta – over allegedly improper comments made by government attorneys to him during a meeting about the investigation in August 2022.

Cannon entertained the request, asking prosecutors about the alleged improper comments – at one point, she told Harbach to calm down after he briefly grew animated during her questioning. But she acknowledged that she didn’t see how the comments impacted Nauta.

While Cannon may have sound legal reasons for how she is addressing all the various motions, the pace nevertheless is unusual for South Florida federal criminal court, where things normally move faster, veteran Miami defense attorney Philip Reizenstein said.

He said the defense strategy is obvious: delaying the trial in hopes that Trump is again elected president and can appoint an attorney general who would order his Justice Department to dismiss the case.

“The court appears to be giving the defendant every opportunity to avoid a trial,” Reizenstein said. “In 37 years of practice in South Florida, I have never seen a judge give so much consideration to scheduling a case in a way that benefits the defendant.”