Trump Should Be on Trial Today for Trying To Overturn the 2020 Election. Here’s Why He’s Not.

WASHINGTON, D.C. —  One of the most anticipated and consequential trials in U.S. political history was supposed to take place today, but a series of major rulings and conspicuous delays have pushed the trial far into the future, perhaps even beyond Election Day.

Former President Donald Trump’s federal election subversion case, brought by special counsel Jack Smith, was scheduled to begin today. Judge Tonya Chutkan, who is overseeing the case, has signaled a willingness to move the case along speedily. 

In August of last year, Trump was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges relating to his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, which include:

  1. Conspiracy to defraud the United States;
  2. Conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding;
  3. Obstruction of and attempt to obstruct an official proceeding and
  4. Conspiracy against the right to vote and have one’s vote counted.

Trump tried to dismiss the case by claiming presidential immunity, but Chutkan dismissed Trump’s motion in December 2023, writing that “whatever immunities a sitting President may enjoy, the United States has only one Chief Executive at a time, and that position does not confer a lifelong ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ pass.” 

Undeterred by Chutkan’s dismissal, the former president quickly appealed her ruling to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit less than a week later. By mid-December, Chutkan paused court proceedings and postponed the trial until the immunity question was resolved.

Sensing an inevitable string of flailing appeals from Trump, special counsel Smith stepped in and asked the U.S. Supreme Court to settle the immunity question once and for all. 

In his writ of certiorari — a request for the Supreme Court to review a lower court’s decision — , Smith wrote that the grand jury’s charges “implicate a central tenet of our democracy” and that the case’s broad public interest requires an “immediate resolution of the immunity question to permit the trial to occur on an appropriate timetable.” A case stemming from former President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal provided similar precedent, according to the filing. 

After waiting nearly two weeks to decide, on Dec. 22, the nation’s high court declined to review the case, but didn’t provide any explanation or further information. At the time, the decision was labeled “a crucial and potentially far-reaching victory to Trump” in his blatant effort to delay the trial by any means necessary. If Trump were to win the election in November, he would have full authority to instruct the U.S. Department of Justice to stop prosecuting the case. 

With the Supreme Court kicking the can down the road, Smith was left to wait until the D.C. Circuit ruled on Feb. 6, a surprisingly slow timeline that granted Trump yet another time to delay the trial. Even before then, today’s trial date was no longer possible. Chutkan had already vacated the start date four days earlier, and a new one hasn’t —and won’t — be scheduled until the immunity question is fully solved.

In a straightforward and direct ruling, the D.C. Circuit panel, which included an H.W. Bush appointee and two Biden appointees,  agreed with Chutkan’s December 2023 decision denying Trump’s motion to dismiss his federal election subversion indictment on presidential immunity grounds. 

“For the purpose of this criminal case, former President Trump has become citizen Trump, with all of the defenses of any other criminal defendant. But any executive immunity that may have protected him while he served as President no longer protects him against this prosecution,” the opinion read.

The searing decision continued: “We cannot accept former President Trump’s claim that a President has unbounded authority to commit crimes that would neutralize the most fundamental check on executive power — the recognition and implementation of election results. Nor can we sanction his apparent contention that the Executive has carte blanche to violate the rights of individual citizens to vote and to have their votes count.”

The opinion at the time allowed for Trump’s case to continue — but only briefly until Feb. 12 when Trump asked the U.S. Supreme Court to pause the panel’s decision pending appeal. In his filing, Trump doubled down on his immunity claims, claiming that “[w]ithout immunity from criminal prosecution, the Presidency as we know it will cease to exist.”

Three weeks later, in an unsigned order, the Supreme Court agreed to take up the question of presidential immunity, scheduling oral argument and hearing the case in full. Despite Jack Smith previously asking for oral argument to take place in March, the Court will hold oral argument during the week of April 22, delaying proceedings for months. Some have pointed out that the case might not resume before the presidential election.

The Court’s timing served as a stark difference to its timing for Trump’s 14th Amendment challenge out of Colorado. The Supreme Court granted Trump’s petition in that case just two days later, as opposed to three weeks, and set oral argument for just over a month later, compared to nearly two months. In that case, the justices seem poised to agree that Trump  should not be disqualified from the presidency under the 14th Amendment. 

Not only has the Supreme Court become increasingly more conservative in recent years, but three of the Court’s six conservative justices were appointed by Trump himself. Even worse, Clarence Thomas’ wife, Ginni Thomas, is reported to have encouraged Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows to overturn the results, promoted the rally that incited the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection and emailed state legislators asking them to vote for a fake set of Trump electors. 

Whether Trump heads to trial before Election Day is still unclear. But a string of developments, all of which have seemed to have broken in favor of the former president, have made the prospect increasingly unlikely. 

Learn more about the case here.

Learn more about Trump’s indictments here