In the next few months, as the weather warms in Washington, something remarkable could happen in the city’s federal courthouse: Donald J. Trump could become the first former president in U.S. history to sit through a trial as a criminal defendant.
The trial, based on charges that Mr. Trump conspired to overturn the 2020 election, is scheduled to start in early March. And while the date could change, it is likely that a jury will sit in judgment of Mr. Trump before the 2024 election — perhaps even before the Republican Party meets in Milwaukee in July for its nominating convention.
Mr. Trump is the front-runner for the Republican nomination and is facing 91 felony charges in four separate cases. Putting him on trial either before the convention or during the general election would potentially lead to a series of events that have never been seen before in the annals of American law and politics.
It would almost certainly fuse Mr. Trump’s role as a criminal defendant with his role as a presidential candidate. It would transform the steps of the federal courthouse into a site for daily impromptu campaign rallies. And it would place the legal case and the race for the White House on a direct collision course, each one increasingly capable of shaping the other.
Throughout it all, Mr. Trump would almost certainly seek to turn the ordinarily sober courtroom proceedings into fodder he could use to influence public opinion and gain any advantage he can in a presidential race unlike any other.
“There is no useful precedent for this — legally, politically — in any dimension that you want to analyze it,” said Chuck Rosenberg, a former United States attorney and F.B.I. official. “The turbulence is particularly dangerous because if Mr. Trump is convicted, he has set the stage for a large portion of the population to reject the jury’s verdict. As part of that, it is also his call to arms, and so there are other dangers that attend to his rhetoric.”
The expectations of how a Trump trial would unfold before the election are based on interviews with people close to the former president. Already, Mr. Trump has sought to capitalize on the New York attorney general’s fraud case against him and his company. In that case, now underway in a Manhattan courtroom, Mr. Trump has shown up when he didn’t have to and has addressed reporters repeatedly.
At the Washington trial, there will surely be enormous security, not only because of Mr. Trump’s status as a former president, but also because the event could become a flashpoint for conflict. There has been no violence during Mr. Trump’s various arraignments, when law enforcement officials had feared the worst.
Still, there are some variables at play that could push the trial in Washington until after the election.
Mr. Trump’s lawyers are planning to appeal a decision last week by Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, who is presiding over the election case, to deny his sweeping claims that he enjoys absolute immunity from the indictment because it covers actions he took while he was president. That appeal, on a question that has never been fully tested, could end up in front of the Supreme Court, further delaying the case even if prosecutors ultimately win the argument on the merits.
But despite such time-buying tactics, Mr. Trump’s legal team is cautiously preparing for a trial in the late spring or early summer. While the other three cases in which Mr. Trump is facing charges are much likelier to be pushed off until after Election Day, the former president’s team believes Judge Chutkan is intent on keeping the proceeding she is overseeing moving ahead.
Mr. Trump has already turned his legal travails into a campaign message that doubles as a lucrative online fund-raising tool. But his attempts to reap political benefit from his prosecutions and to use his legal proceedings as a platform for his talking points about victimhood and grievance are likely to only intensify if he is actually on trial, in the nation’s capital, in the middle of the 2024 presidential cycle.
There is no evidence that President Biden has meddled in any of the Trump prosecutions. Still, people close to Mr. Trump are planning to exploit the situation by falsely claiming to voters that Mr. Biden is a “socialist” leader directly seeking to imprison his political rival. One of those people, who was not authorized to speak publicly, suggested that this message could resonate especially powerfully with Hispanic voters, some of whom have family members who have suffered under dictatorial regimes in Latin America.
When he is in Judge Chutkan’s courtroom, Mr. Trump is likely to be fairly well-behaved, constrained by his lawyers and by the federal rules of criminal procedure. He is unlikely to say much at all under Judge Chutkan’s supervision. And his silence inside the courtroom may feel all the quieter given the noise he is likely to make outside it in front of the television cameras that will surely await him every day.
Even now, Mr. Trump has been engaging in a fusillade of daily attacks not only against the election case in Washington but also against his three other criminal cases — as well as his civil fraud trial in Manhattan.
He has tried to blur all four cases together in the public’s mind as one giant “witch hunt,” yoking them to previous investigations into him. He has assailed the judges, prosecutors and witnesses involved in the cases, leveraging moments when gag orders against him have been temporarily lifted. He has also mounted a sustained publicity blitz, comparing himself to Nelson Mandela while portraying the indictments against him as retaliatory strikes by his political opponents, including Mr. Biden.
This sort of spin and vitriol is only likely to increase when crowds of reporters await Mr. Trump’s exit from Judge Chutkan’s court each day.
Mr. Trump’s allies expect he will hold news conferences outside the courthouse, seeking to maximize media coverage and hoping to have cameras capture his daily motorcade departures, likely to the airport to fly back to New York so he can sleep in his own bed.
The trial and the enormous publicity that surrounds it could also offer Mr. Trump an unmatched opportunity to communicate to the American public without anyone providing an effective rebuttal.
The gag order in Washington does not preclude Mr. Trump from attacking the trial in general, and federal prosecutors are barred by their code of ethics from speaking about a case that is in process. That means the former president, who has no compunction about lying, is likely to be the only person directly involved in the proceeding talking about it daily on television and social media.
“The reality of the ethical laws as they pertain to prosecutors is that Trump is going to continue to have a pathway to rail against the indictment and trial for all the reasons that he’s done in the past and will do in the future, essentially unfiltered and unlimited — the prosecutors won’t,” said Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the former Manhattan district attorney whose office spent years investigating Mr. Trump’s finances and business dealings.
“There’s a significant imbalance in the ability of prosecutors to comment in real time about the evidence and the case.”
A coalition of news organizations has asked Judge Chutkan to televise the proceedings and Mr. Trump has joined in the request. But that is unlikely to happen given that federal rules prohibit news cameras from broadcasting from the courtroom. Prosecutors in the office of the special counsel, Jack Smith, have opposed the request, saying that the former president would turn the proceeding into a “media event” with a “carnival atmosphere.”
Mr. Smith’s team is unlikely to react at all to Mr. Trump’s provocations — at least in public — instead focusing its energies on winning the case inside the courtroom, said Samuel Buell, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at Duke University.
“There have always been circuslike cases and this could be the most circuslike case of them all,” Mr. Buell said. “But the strategy of the prosecutors in these cases is to not get distracted.”
Mr. Buell suggested that the special counsel’s office might request special protections for members of the jury who will be under scrutiny in a way rarely seen in other criminal matters. He said prosecutors might ask for the jurors to be anonymous or to have federal marshals drive them to and from the courthouse every day.
The selection of the jurors will be of paramount importance, with Mr. Trump’s best hopes of avoiding a conviction likely resting on a hung jury, according to former prosecutors and defense lawyers. Given the demographics of Washington, D.C., the jury pool is likely to be racially diverse, but it is unclear how politically diverse it will be.
Should he be convicted, it is unclear how quickly Mr. Trump would be sentenced. He will most likely file appeals. And the details of any sentence — when he would be punished and whether he would be sent to prison or ordered to serve home confinement — would all carry enormous significance and are likely to be litigated intensely.
Even though Mr. Trump will try to shape public narratives about the trial, wall-to-wall coverage about it may not be entirely to his benefit.
The trial is expected to feature a parade of witnesses, including many of his own lawyers and advisers who will testify under oath that he had been told in no uncertain terms that he lost the 2020 election. It is also likely to focus heavily on the role he played in stirring up the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
But even if Mr. Trump dominates the discussion about the trial on the airwaves, the slow and steady accumulation of evidence presented in the courtroom could serve as a counterbalance.
“At trial, the prosecutors will present witnesses,” Mr. Vance said. “It becomes more balanced, and more powerful, when the trial is ongoing.”