When it comes to the four pending criminal indictments of Donald Trump, no normal human being with any semblance of a real life can be expected to keep it all straight. Luckily, I’m neither of those things.
So, as we step into 2024, let’s assess that looming mass of Trump trials, suddenly visible on the calendar’s horizon. How, and when, will it all play out? Most importantly, how many Trump trials will be held and completed before Election Day?
I present to you forthwith the definitive, ironclad, mathematically-precise answer: Probably one. Outside shot at two, with a low but increasing chance at zero. Definitely not four, or three. If I had to set an over-under line for the Vegas bookmakers, I’d put it at one-and-a-half. Throw down your bets.
The crucial make-or-break point is November 5, 2024 – Election Day. That date matters, first, because of the widely-held view that the American public needs some resolution before heading to the ballot box; people can reasonably expect to know in advance whether they’re voting for a convicted felon. Recent polling underscores the stakes. Trump leads President Joe Biden by a few percentage points in five key battleground states, but that margin flips if Trump is convicted and sentenced before the election. (Query what happens if he is tried and not convicted; I haven’t seen polling to that effect, but we can imagine.)
Of course, if Trump wins the election, all four cases are essentially doomed. He’ll order DOJ to dismiss the two federal indictments (in DC for 2020 election subversion and in Florida for Mar-a-Lago classified documents), and he might try to pardon himself, for good measure. The two state cases (in Manhattan for falsifying hush money payments and in Fulton County, Georgia, relating to the 2020 election) will almost certainly have to wait for Trump to finish his (hypothetical) second term in early 2029.
Now let’s tick through the four pending criminal cases.
Fulton County District Attorney: 2020 Election Subversion. Cross this one off. DA Fani Willis has (unseriously, in my view) requested a trial in August 2024. The judge has not yet ruled, but he plainly won’t grant that start date.
Here’s the math. When asked how long the trial would take, the DA’s office estimated four months; the judge responded that it realistically could take twice as long. Indeed, Willis later acknowledged that she likely would be trying the case into early 2025. (Heck, the same DA’s office just took ten months to select a jury on a lower-profile RICO case.) So, under the DA’s proposal, Trump would be on trial – and physically removed from the campaign trail – starting in August 2024, through the entire general election campaign in September and October, through the election itself in November, and then for several months beyond that. That won’t happen. Moving along.
DOJ Special Counsel: 2020 Election Subversion. Until recently, this case was the heavy favorite to go first. It featured the earliest trial date (March 4, 2024) plus a prosecutor and judge hellbent on trying the case before the election.
This locomotive was barrelling towards trial – until it hit a ditch when Trump’s team filed a widely-expected motion to dismiss, based on purported presidential immunity. That motion failed, predictably, in the District Court. Trump’s team appealed, and Judge Tanya Chutkan ruled that trial-level proceedings must be “stayed” (put on hold, essentially) pending resolution of the appeal.
At that point, Special Counsel Jack Smith must’ve realized that appellate proceedings in the ordinary course would take months, blowing out the March trial date. So he made a smart and aggressive move, asking the Supreme Court to take the case directly from the District Court, bypassing the mid-level Court of Appeals. Problem was, Smith failed (or refused) to specify why this unusual expedited process was necessary; we all know he wants to try the case before the election, but he religiously refuses to acknowledge this obvious truth on the record, instead resorting to bromides that amount to “speed = good, delay = bad.” The Supreme Court, apparently unmoved by Smith’s non-specific call for prompt justice, denied the request.
So now the case is with the Court of Appeals, which has set a dizzying schedule culminating in oral argument on January 9. Expect a ruling by the end of January (and expect another firm rejection of Trump’s immunity claim). But then, Trump can ask for rehearing en banc (by the entire Court of Appeals), which will burn at least a few additional weeks (more if it’s granted). Then he technically has 90 days to seek certiorari in the Supreme Court, meaning he can run the clock until May or so. (The Court of Appeals can ramp up the pressure by lifting the District Court stay, but trial can’t realistically proceed until the Supreme Court has had its say.) If the Supreme Court takes the case, which seems inevitable, then tack on another couple months, minimum.
Bottom line: there’s vanishingly little chance the March 2024 trial date holds, and the appellate process might push this case until the summer, or even after the election.
Manhattan District Attorney: Falsification of Business Records / Hush Money Payments. Both DA Alvin Bragg and the judge have hinted (and then some) that they’d be willing to move their current March 25, 2024 trial date back to accommodate Smith’s conflicting election subversion case. It seemed likely then that the DA would quietly give way to the harder-hitting federal charges. Made sense for all parties, on balance, and the hush money case faded in the public consciousness: Oh yeah, that one about how they paid off Stormy Daniels, is that still on?
But when Smith hit the immunity roadblock, it suddenly became plausible – perhaps even likely – that this case could wind up going first. This scenario presents mixed news for both sides. If you’re hoping to see Trump tried before the election, this may be your best chance. But if you want to see a truly game-changing verdict that could genuinely impact the election, this isn’t your best vehicle. Trump’s charged conduct is the least serious of the four indictments, and the New York state charges are light – either misdemeanor or the lowest-level felony, depending on the jury’s findings – and almost certainly wouldn’t send Trump to prison, even in his worst-case scenario. Also consider that the conduct is now over seven years old, the feds passed on charging it, and the star witness, Michael Cohen, continues to undermine his own credibility by bizarrely claiming he lied under oath when he pled guilty to a federal tax fraud charge, and then by (apparently unwittingly) submitting fake, AI-generated case citations to his own attorney.
DOJ Special Counsel: Mar-a-Lago Classified Documents. Late last year, Judge Aileen Cannon denied Trump’s motion to delay his May 2024 trial date. But she left the door to an eventual postponement not merely ajar, or wide open, but taken entirely off the hinges. The Judge ruled that Trump’s adjournment motion was “premature” but – but – she might come back and grant it in either of two circumstances: (1) if the parties encounter delays with the complex, ongoing production of classified documents, and (2) if either of the two Trump trials slated to start in March 2024 actually begins on schedule, which would afford Trump insufficient time to prepare for the Mar-a-Lago trial. Scenario (1) might happen, and scenario (2) – either the federal election subversion case or the Manhattan DA’s hush money case starts in March – seems more likely than not. If so, the Mar-a-Lago case probably will get kicked until after the election. But if both Smith’s election case and the DA’s hush money case somehow move, then this one might be the only one left standing before the election. Indeed, it’s all one big, high-stakes game of musical chairs.
Prosecutors simply cannot try all four Trump cases before Election Day, but they likely will, collectively, get one shot, give or take. If that frustrates you, place the blame on the prosecutors who waited two and a half years before charging – specifically Merrick Garland (who squandered a year and a half before appointing Smith as special counsel), Willis, and Bragg. They left themselves, the courts, and the American public with no wiggle room if delays cropped up – and delays always crop up, even in routine trials. It’s like if you had a 4:00 flight, lived a half-hour away from the airport, and left your home at 3:15. You’re giving yourself zero cushion, and you can’t fairly complain when you miss your flight because there’s a bit of traffic or long lines at the security gate.
Trump likely will face some moment of definitive accountability before the 2024 election. But, as often happens with the former president, justice will be belated, and incomplete. The big question as we head into the new year is whether partial justice will be enough.