Trump’s lawyers ask judge in documents case to consider campaign timing

By Andrew Goudsward

FORT PIERCE, Florida (Reuters) -Donald Trump’s lawyers asked a U.S. federal judge on Tuesday not to treat the former president the same as any other criminal defendant in setting the timing for his trial on charges of mishandling classified documents, citing his presidential campaign.

Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination to face Democratic President Joe Biden in the 2024 election, has pleaded not guilty to charges of unlawfully retaining national defense documents after he left office in 2021 and conspiring to obstruct government efforts to retrieve them.

Trump lawyer Christopher Kise asked U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon, who was appointed to the bench by Trump, to consider the timing of the U.S. presidential campaign in deciding when to schedule the trial.

Cannon did not set a trial date during the hearing, which Trump did not attend, but appeared skeptical of prosecutors’ request for a December start. She asked prosecutor Jay Bratt if there had ever been a case involving classified information that had gone to trial in less than six months. Bratt said he could not point to a specific case.

But Cannon also did not seem inclined to grant Trump’s request for an indefinite delay, saying, “we need to set a schedule.”

The documents case is one of several prosecutions Trump is facing related to his time in the White House. Trump said on Tuesday that U.S. Special Counsel Jack Smith, who brought the documents case, has also sent Trump a letter telling him he is a target of a grand jury investigation into his efforts to overturn his 2020 election defeat.

During Tuesday’s hearing in the documents case, Trump attorney Kise said that because the U.S. Justice Department under Biden brought the charges, the case could be seen as the “two leading contenders for president of the United States squaring off in court.”

Prosecutor David Harbach called suggestions of political interference “flat out false.” He noted that U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Smith as special counsel to distance the investigation from politics.

He said career prosecutors assigned to the case would not be working it if “we thought we were doing somebody’s political bidding.”

The charges against Trump include violations of the Espionage Act, which criminalizes unauthorized possession of defense information. Trump, 77, would face a sentence of up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Cannon initially scheduled the trial to start on Aug. 14 – a date that both the defense and prosecution opposed because they said they needed more time to prepare.

After an FBI search last year at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, that turned up classified documents central to the criminal case, Cannon ruled in Trump’s favor in a challenge he brought to the Justice Department’s investigation brought months before criminal charges were filed. Cannon’s ruling was later overturned on appeal.

(Reporting by Andrew Goudsward; Editing by Will Dunham, David Bario, Noeleen Walder and Daniel Wallis)