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In various legal cases, Trump is given the gift of delay

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It's time for Trump's Trials.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) We love Trump. We love Trump.

DONALD TRUMP: This is a prosecution.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: He actually just stormed out of the courtroom.

JACK SMITH: Innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

DETROW: Former President Donald Trump began the week on Monday with a win at the Supreme Court, where the nine justices unanimously ruled to keep him on the ballot. A day later, he swept nearly all of the Republican primaries on Super Tuesday, and now he's the Republican Party's presumptive presidential nominee. Trump is reaping the benefits all along of a legal strategy of delay.

To understand what this all means for Trump from both a legal and a political standpoint, I spoke with NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, as well as senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. And I started by asking Carrie what the timeline is now for Trump's federal election interference case, with the Supreme Court set to hear oral arguments on his immunity claims on April 25.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: So, Scott, it depends on when the Supreme Court issues a ruling in this case and what it says, right? So if the court issues a ruling in late June or early July, that still presumably would give the trial judge, Tanya Chutkan, enough time to proceed and at least start the trial before the election. But there are a couple of complicating factors here. One is that we don't know whether the justices or a majority of the justices are going to send this case back for more work to the district court.

The question they're asking is about presidential immunity in official acts. And it could be that these justices want the trial judge to go back and figure out which of Trump's behaviors on and around January 6 and thereafter were official acts and which were the acts of a candidate running for office. And so that could require a lot more work of the trial judge. And presumably Trump could appeal those determinations, and that, I'm told, could be the death knell for a trial in that case this year.

DETROW: Other thing I wanted to ask you while we had you here was that a lot has been made of the 80-something days between when the proceedings were frozen and this immunity question began and when the trial was supposed to start. And there's a lot of thinking out there that, well, whenever you get the Supreme Court ruling, that would start an 80-something day clock. Is that how you understand it?

JOHNSON: I have some new reporting on this. OK. So Judge Chutkan did say at a status conference in the Trump case that she would think about giving him 82 or 88 days. But my new reporting suggests that people are making too much of that statement...

DETROW: Really?

JOHNSON: ...And that, in fact, she wants to give him a reasonable amount of time to prepare. And maybe that would be four, five, six weeks, so it wouldn't be three months. Given four, five, six weeks, it's still possible, although the window is narrow, for this trial to happen this year.

DETROW: Carrie, a lifetime ago, also known as Monday...

JOHNSON: (Laughter) Yeah.

DETROW: ...This same Supreme Court gave Trump a big win, a unanimous win in the case, looking at whether or not states had the power to kick Trump off the ballot for engaging in insurrection. Did anything in that ruling surprise you?

JOHNSON: Well, you know, we say it's a unanimous victory for Trump, and it was. But if you dig a little bit underneath the surface, five of the more conservative justices went farther than the liberals wanted to go. And that's important because what the court determined was that an individual state cannot go around disqualifying a federal candidate. And there are lots of good reasons for that, such as, like, setting up a patchwork system and mass chaos and disenfranchising voters and confusing voters. But the majority went even further and seemed to suggest that Congress would need to pass a special kind of law, and it would be hard to do this to remove somebody like Donald Trump from the ballot. And it would be hard to do this in any moment but especially before November.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: I do think it's funny, though, in part of that case, having Justice Amy Coney Barrett talk about how the court needs to turn the temperature down, considering everything that's happened controversially with former President Trump, and this idea that turning the temperature down is just about being civil to each other, as opposed to, like, the actual rulings that they make that are pretty highly controversial and inflammatory - like, I don't know, the Dobbs decision.

DETROW: Since we spent so much time talking about the 14th Amendment and the insurrection clause, did this ruling effectively water that down or kill it? I mean, like, this is a group of justices who always talk about taking the Constitution at face value. There's language in the Constitution about this. They chose another path.

JOHNSON: It's very hard to imagine a successful legal challenge along these lines. Certainly, all of the state challenges to Donald Trump this year are over, you know, so Maine and Illinois and Colorado, which all tried to disqualify him, that's all done. And the rest of these pieces of litigation are going to go away if they haven't already. Moving forward, it's going to be really, really hard for Congress, I think, to pass the kind of law the Supreme Court laid out here...

DETROW: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...That would allow someone to be disqualified, a candidate for federal office, certainly a president of the United States. And I think that's exactly what Chief Justice John Roberts was trying to do.

MONTANARO: And Roberts likes to point back to Congress or punt as much as he possibly can on a lot of these controversial cases. He did that with this case, with this 14th Amendment case, pointing to section five, saying that it's up to Congress to enforce the insurrection clause, essentially, when the rest of the 14th Amendment isn't enforced necessarily by an act of Congress. You know, the liberal justices noted this in their other concurrence that read more like a dissent.

And I do wonder what it's going to mean for the future of 14th Amendment cases but also for the Trump cases, for this immunity case. Are they going to try to look for some other offramp that excuses them from having to, you know, say whether or not a president is truly above the law or not?

JOHNSON: I don't think there's any getting around that, OK? So we...

(LAUGHTER)

MONTANARO: I mean...

JOHNSON: There's no ducking that question, friend. I mean, we could talk about it again in April, but I think not, ok? And we do have some precedent, right? We have - this Supreme Court has heard multiple cases involving Donald Trump and his financial records, his accounting records, the records the White House didn't want to turn over related to January 6.

DETROW: Right.

JOHNSON: This Supreme Court has sided with those legal challengers and not Donald Trump on all those issues. And, of course, the Supreme Court in 1974 very rapidly, within two months, got - two months it took for them to decide the question of Richard Nixon and the White House tapes that he did not want to turn over. So the Supreme Court can move very quickly when it comes to allegations of illegality against a president, and we'll see how quickly they move in April.

DETROW: Domenico Montanaro, Carrie Johnson, thanks, as always.

MONTANARO: You got it, Scott.

JOHNSON: Thank you. 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.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.