Judge Pushes Back Critical Filing Deadline in Trump Documents Case

Judge Pushes Back Critical Filing Deadline in Trump Documents Case

Reversing one of her own decisions, the federal judge overseeing former President Donald J. Trump’s classified documents case granted his request on Monday to postpone the deadline for a crucial court filing in the criminal proceeding, increasing the chance that any trial would be pushed past the November election.

The ruling by the judge, Aileen M. Cannon, was made in a bare-bones order that contained no factual or legal reasoning. It did not schedule a new deadline but erased the one she had set almost a month ago ordering Mr. Trump’s lawyers to file by Thursday a detailed list of the classified materials that they intend to introduce at the trial, which is set to take place at some point in Federal District Court in Fort Pierce, Fla.

That list is enormously consequential because, when filed, it will mark the first step in what will ultimately be a pitched battle between the defense and prosecution over what sorts of classified materials the jury will get to hear about at trial — a contested process, balancing issues of public access and national security, that could take months to complete.

Mr. Trump has relentlessly pursued a strategy of delaying all four of the criminal cases he is facing, and if he succeeds in delaying his trial on charges of mishandling classified documents until after the election, he could order his Justice Department to drop the matter altogether if he wins.

Judge Cannon’s postponement of the filing deadline was merely the latest example of her acceding to Mr. Trump’s attempts to delay the classified documents trial. Even though she held a hearing in Fort Pierce on March 1 specifically to change the current May 20 start of the trial, she has not yet selected a new date.

And she has failed to make any decisions on several important motions, which has resulted in further delays.

The current dispute began nearly a month ago when Mr. Trump’s lawyers asked Judge Cannon to delay the Thursday deadline they are facing at least until June. Their argument was seemingly uncomplicated: They said they were far too busy to draft the list of classified exhibits because they were defending the former president in a separate criminal trial — the one in Manhattan in which he stands accused of falsifying business records to keep a sex scandal from damaging his 2016 presidential campaign.

But on Monday afternoon, the lawyers offered a new rationale for the delay: They claimed that prosecutors in the office of the special counsel, Jack Smith, had failed to properly secure the classified materials at the heart of the case after seizing them nearly two years ago from Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s private club and residence in Florida.

Without quite accusing Mr. Smith’s team of misconduct, the lawyers insinuated that the prosecutors had made a grave mistake and that they needed time to evaluate the situation before submitting their filing about the classified materials they intended to introduce at trial.

In making that claim, the lawyers exploited an admission that Mr. Smith’s prosecutors had made on Friday, acknowledging that some of the documents in some of the boxes seized from Mar-a-Lago may no longer be in the same order as when they were collected by the F.B.I.

Prosecutors offered an explanation for the shifting of the contents of the boxes. They said the order of the papers in the boxes might have changed slightly because of a review of the documents conducted by an independent arbiter that Mr. Trump himself demanded, and Judge Cannon granted, shortly after the materials were seized.

The prosecutors also said the materials — including index cards, books and stationery — were relatively small and might have accidentally moved around when the boxes were carried from place to place during the investigation of the case.

Although they have not formally accused the special counsel’s office of misconduct, Mr. Trump’s lawyers raised the possibility in their filing on Monday of what they described as “evidence spoliation.” Moreover, they capitalized on the fact that some of the documents in some of the boxes may have moved around.

That Judge Cannon agreed to push back the deadline suggests the extent to which she has given Mr. Trump’s legal team a wide berth in their efforts to defend him.

Over and over, Judge Cannon, who was appointed by Mr. Trump, has treated seriously arguments that many, if not most, federal judges would have rejected out of hand. Often, her acceptance of Mr. Trump’s unorthodox claims have resulted in significant delays in bringing the charges in the classified documents case in front of a jury.

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