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Four Trials and a Primary: Here’s What Trump’s Weirdest Campaign Might Look Like

The former president will split his time between seeking the Republican nomination and performing his duties as a semiprofessional defendant.

Seth Wenig/Getty Images

After all of next year’s primaries and caucuses end, it is likely that Donald Trump will be rechristened the GOP’s 2024 presidential nominee. But it’ll get pretty weird along the way—even compared to how weird things got during his first primary campaign (which got very weird!)—thanks to the sort of legal troubles that might completely consume the time and energy of a normal human being with the misfortune of being credibly accused of such a vast array of crimes. But Trump is, of course, well beyond the bounds of normal, and as The New Republic’s editor, Michael Tomasky, recently opined, it’s very possible that the former president will seamlessly integrate his legal responsibilities into his campaign.

But that’s easier said than done—and the doing truly does look tricky. First up in Trump’s legal calendar will be his second trial in the E. Jean Carroll civil defamation lawsuit in New York, which is preliminarily scheduled for January 15, 2024—the same day as the Iowa caucuses. That date is likely not final because it happens to fall on the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday for next year, but it would still probably take place some time in late January, when the critical early nominating contests are in full swing.

A federal jury already found Trump liable for sexual assault and defamation earlier this year in the lawsuit; Carroll renewed her claims this summer after Trump again claimed she was lying about the assault. Trump is currently appealing the original ruling against him to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing he was protected by presidential immunity for the original comments. But the judge presiding over the trial ruled earlier this month that the second case could go forward.

Next comes Trump’s first criminal trial. Judge Tanya Chutkan said this week that Trump’s D.C. trial for the January 6 conspiracy is set to begin on March 4, 2024. That Monday also happens to be one day before the Super Tuesday primaries will be held in 15 states in the GOP primary. Chutkan rejected an accelerated timeline request from federal prosecutors, as well as an extraordinary request by Trump’s lawyers who, in the spirit of “you miss all the shots you don’t take,” attempted to persuade her to delay the trial for two years.

Then, on March 25, Trump is set to face trial for the hush-money charges brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg last year. While Bragg’s indictment of Trump was the first to be filed against the former president, the Manhattan district attorney has publicly said he is comfortable with holding a trial later instead of sooner depending on the courts’ various considerations. Judges in Trump’s various criminal cases will be coordinating their trial dates at some level to avoid constitutional issues with holding them simultaneously.

His second and final federal criminal trial, the Mar-a-Lago classified documents case, is scheduled to begin May 20. As with the other cases, Trump and his lawyers had unsuccessfully sought to delay the trial until after the presidential election in November 2024. While prosecutors had sought a far earlier start date, in December 2023, Judge Aileen Cannon opted to reject both requests and choose a sort of middle ground between them.

While this was technically a defeat for Trump, the former president responded differently than he did to similar rejections in other trials. Through a spokesman, he hailed the trial date as a “major setback” for the Justice Department and special counsel Jack Smith. “The extensive schedule allows President Trump and his legal team to continue fighting this empty hoax,” a Trump spokesman claimed. More than anything else, this may reflect Trumpworld’s perception—and a deserved one—that Cannon is a much friendlier judge toward them than they’ll face in other cases.

The big question mark looming over this calendar is the false-electors Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, case that Trump is facing in Fulton County, Georgia. In Trump’s other trials, the former president is either the sole defendant or faces charges alongside one or two other individuals. The Georgia case, on the other hand, features Trump as just one of 19 co-defendants in a racketeering prosecution. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has told the court that she wants to try the defendants together instead of individually or in smaller groups.

Willis’s proposed start date was March 4, 2024, but that would now overlap with Trump’s D.C. federal trial. Further complicating that plan are motions for a speedy trial filed earlier his month by Kenneth Chesebro and Sidney Powell, two of the attorneys alleged to have helped Trump carry out a plot to fabricate state elector certificates. Under such a motion, Georgia law requires those two defendants to be tried within the next few months or else face automatic acquittal. Willis then asked the court to set all of the defendants’ trial dates for October 23, the same date as Chesebro and Powell, but Trump’s lawyers opposed this too.

Taken all together, Trump could spend the bulk of the Republican presidential primary calendar off the campaign trail and in a courtroom instead. This is such a novel situation—no other president has even been arrested or indicted ahead of an election, let alone tried while voters are casting ballots—that it is hard to predict how it would affect the presidential race. It is possible that the intense, sustained focus on Trump’s legal troubles could push GOP primary voters toward safer alternatives; it is also possible that it leads hard-core GOP partisans to rally around him that much faster, propelling him to an early primary victory.

The most commonly invoked parallel to Trump’s situation is that of Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party candidate who ran for president five times in the early twentieth century. During the 1920 election, Debs was two years into a prison sentence for violating the Espionage Act of 1917, after he publicly urged draftees to reject conscription during World War I. He ultimately received more than 900,000 votes across the United States, becoming the textbook reminder for the constitutional fact that a criminal conviction does not disqualify someone from running for president.

There are significant differences between the two situations. Debs was not a major-party candidate, and there were no serious expectations that he would win the presidential election. What’s more, it is possible that Trump won’t be incarcerated before Election Day next year if he is found guilty. Judges typically have some discretion about when they can formally sentence a defendant. Given the serious constitutional questions that would arise with an incarcerated president or president-elect, they may ultimately opt to delay sentencing until after the election results are known.

Just how much the trials would overshadow the primaries is also unclear. It would be extraordinary if the GOP had not settled on a presidential candidate by then. Excluding Trump’s own primary battle in 2016, where some of his rivals refused to concede even after they were mathematically eliminated, the only presidential primary race that lasted that long in the twenty-first century was the 2008 battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Clinton only conceded on June 7 of that year, after a majority of superdelegates had openly backed Obama and made him the presumptive nominee.  But Trump has made a habit of defying the normal expectations for American presidential politics, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t proceed in a similar manner as a criminal defendant

The baseline assumption is that he will choose to attend his various criminal proceedings like many defendants do. But even that is far from certain. While Trump has a constitutional right to attend his own trial, he is not obligated to be present for any portion of it unless he testifies in his own defense. For practical reasons, it’s likely that he would appear when the verdict is read or other key moments of his choosing, but his presence is generally not mandatory. And Trump’s right to attend his own trial will make it difficult for judges in different states to schedule their trials too closely together, lest they double-book the former president. After all, Donald Trump may stand accused of breaking countless laws in these trials, but the laws of physics are beyond even his abilities.