Fani Willis, the district attorney in Fulton County, Ga., asked a judge Wednesday to start the trial of former President Trump on charges alleging he and 18 co-defendants plotted to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results in March — just more than six months away.
But legal experts told The Hill such a timeline is ambitious at best, with the pure logistics of a trial of such magnitude creating roadblocks before it even begins.
“You worry it’s going to turn into a circus atmosphere,” said Kay Levine, a law professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
Trump and 18 others — his lawyers, political advisers, allies and affiliates — were hit with a combined 41 charges earlier this week, stemming from Willis’s years-long probe of efforts by Trump and his associates to keep the former president in power after he lost the 2020 election.
The defendants are all charged under Georgia’s broad Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which allows prosecutors to weave the seemingly disparate defendants and their alleged actions into one enterprise. Willis’s case presents a multitude of schemes prosecutors say were meant to undermine the outcome of Georgia’s election.
Although Willis said she has no desire to be “first or last” in prosecuting Trump, she has signaled her office won’t waste time.
“We do want to move this case along,” she said Monday.
‘Not really realistic’
A six-month timetable is “overly optimistic; very, very ambitious; and not really realistic,” Levine said. The simple act of adjusting to each defendant’s calendar will likely cause extensive delays — “a continuance for this and a continuance for that,” she said.
That’s especially true for Trump, who is facing three other criminal trials while running his 2024 presidential campaign.
Trial dates in Trump’s New York hush money case and the federal case probing his handling of classified documents are set for March 25 and May 20, respectively. Special counsel Jack Smith has proposed a trial start date of Jan. 2 for charges related to Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election in Washington, though a judge has not yet approved it.
With Willis’s proposed March 4 start date, at least three of the four trials would land squarely in the middle of a presidential primary season in full swing, said Jeffrey Cohen, an associate professor at Boston College Law School and a former federal prosecutor.
“I would hope that the judge will both respect the need for the public’s right to have a speedy trial … with the former president’s right to participate in the presidential primary season,” Cohen said. “I suspect around primaries there would be some leeway, but if he’s just holding a rally or something like that, then I would expect that wouldn’t be a good enough reason to delay the trial.”
Trump’s strategy: delay
Attempting to delay proceedings until after the 2024 election and beyond has been a key strategy for Trump’s legal teams in his other criminal cases. Caren Myers Morrison, a law professor at Georgia State University and former federal prosecutor, said to expect “a lot of motions filed” by Trump’s attorneys — motions to move from state to federal court, to dismiss the indictment, to claim privilege over evidence and more.
“The approach from Trump’s lawyers so far has been maximalist, and there’s no reason to believe they will change their strategy now,” Morrison said.
Willis said Monday she plans to try all 19 defendants together, remarks on which The Hill requested additional comment.
If all that occurs, the well of the court alone — the space separating the parties from the public — could far exceed 50 people, causing a host of additional logistical issues.
Each defendant is entitled to at least one attorney, though some may opt for more. Willis’s team, court staff and the jury would be present. And Trump would likely be accompanied by Secret Service protection, adding more bodies to the room.
“It’s certainly a fair question to ask, like, do we even have a courtroom that’s going to fit all these people? A counsel table? It’s a logistical hassle,” Levine said.
All 19 defendants in one courtroom
Prosecutors and defense attorneys could benefit from keeping the group whole.
An overflowing defense side of the courtroom could act as a constant reminder to jurors of the sweeping plot Fulton County prosecutors are alleging the defendants engaged in, according to Cohen.
“There is some strength in having a lot of defendants sitting at the table in the courtroom, because it shows, visually, the extent of the criminal enterprise,” he said.
Defense attorneys for Trump’s 18 co-defendants might argue their clients are “not like the others,” Cohen added. That narrative is one to which juries are sometimes sympathetic, according to Morrison.
“Even a jury that might convict some of the top people could take pity on the little guy and acquit them,” Morrison said.
Breaking up the single case into multiple cases could help push things forward, according to Morrison. The various alleged schemes presented in the indictment — from the fake electors plot and pressure campaign on local officials, to the Coffee County election equipment breach and efforts to influence a Fulton County election worker — would make splitting up the case an easier task.
But the experts agreed it’s unlikely all 19 defendants will make it to trial, predicting several will plead guilty and agree to cooperate with the government. The sheer scope of their alleged criminal enterprise makes complications all but inevitable, according to Levine.
“It’s going to be a challenge to run this whole trial,” she said.