Clip: Trump suffers legal setbacks as general election kicks off

Mar. 15, 2024 AT 8:53 p.m. EDT

With the clock ticking down to the November election, former President Donald Trump is facing four criminal trials. This week, more than one judge turned down his attempts to dismiss his cases outright. But a number of delays in these trials is also playing to Trump’s favor.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Laura Barron-Lopez: So, first, Scott, in the case against Trump for his handling of the classified documents, Judge Aileen Cannon denied his motion to have the case dismissed on the grounds that the Espionage Act was too vague. But this case isn't headed for trial any time soon, is it?

Scott Macfarlane: There's four different cases, four different sets of allegations. One thing is consistent. The clock is ticking in all of them and they don't seem to be getting anywhere. So, the time is being stretched, which is the M.O. of a Trump legal team, and has been for years.

In the Aileen Cannon, Fort Pierce, Florida, classified documents case, the readout from the room was, this all could have been an email. We didn't have to have a hearing about this. These arguments were profoundly flawed. We did not have to go through the process of scheduling and staging a hearing. This could have been expedited.

And in all these cases, you can hear, you could hear the voices, if you listen close enough, of Trump opponents saying, we can move this all more swiftly, but they really can't. I mean, the legal system is made to be judicious, it is made be deliberate, and because these case were all unveiled so close to the election, the prosecutors left themselves vulnerable to this, to the clock ticking toward November.

Laura Barron-Lopez: In the case of the classified documents, though, I mean, isn't it true, some legal experts have told me that Judge Cannon could have just dismissed this motion almost immediately.

Scott Macfarlane: You've never seen a docket as clogged as that case in Florida. The number of entries, the number filings, it is herculean and it's just getting started.

Jim Sciutto: Well, the issue was the Espionage Act, right? And even she who, at other times, I'm sure we've talked to lawyers with similar opinions on this case, someone who's cut a lot of brakes for Trump could not make the leap to say that, in effect, the Espionage Act, which has been the law of this land for many decades, does not apply here.

Now, she's left open the window for that to be a case to be argued or an issue to be argued later in the case, but even she could not say, you know what, forget about that.

Todd Zwillich: The one thing, though, that prosecutors are trying to hang over Judge Cannon's head here as she takes a lot of time to rule on a lot emotions and schedule hearings, sometimes when she doesn't have to, is the 11th Circuit. The special counsel has already made clear in filings, you might want to reverse this decision over here where you missed the law or this decision here, because we've got the 11th Circuit where we can appeal to.

She's already been reversed by the 11th Circuit twice, very early in this case, back when the search on Mar-a-Lago, when the search warrants happened. Far be it for me to say that that was embarrassing, but if you ask a judge about the ruling that came from the 11th Circuit, reversing her summarily on both of those decisions, it's not something that a district court judge wants to happen again.

Scott Macfarlane: It was unequivocal, it was emphatic.

Todd Zwillich: It was a bench slap, as they call it, in legal circles. That's what it is. It was hardcore, and the special counsel has made clear, we will go back to the 11th Circuit judge if you don't get with the law, especially on a couple of motions that have been out there.

Laura Barron-Lopez: The other thing that happened was an Atlanta judge rejected Trump's motion today to disqualify District Attorney Fani Willis. That's in the Georgia case that has been brought against him for his attempts to overturn Georgia's election -- presidential election in 2020.

And so, Todd, what's the big takeaway here from that development?

Todd Zwillich:  Well, Fani Willis can continue on the case. That was the question. Most of experts that I talked to all along never thought that there was sufficient evidence to disqualify her based on her relationship with another prosecutor on that case, Nathan Wade, that it wasn't enough of a conflict of interest that would have disqualified her.

That doesn't mean it was good judgment. That does not mean that it is a good look. And that doesn't mean that there hasn't been political damage here. So, Nathan Wade, who is the other prosecutor in question, has stepped aside now. That means the Fani Willis and the Fulton County D.A.'s Office, writ large, can stay on the case.

But if the goal here from the defendants who brought this motion to disqualify her was, sure, get her disqualified if you can, but also get here in front of the public, to get her out in front of potential jurors in Fulton County, dirty her up, drag her through the mud, make questionable pictures of her behavior and her judgment, well, the damage is done. That's a good thing.

Now, this trial may not take place for months. It probably won't. May or may it not place before the election. This is a sprawling indictment. It's a conspiracy RICO case. There are still 14 defendants plus Trump. It is massive. But if the goal here, delaying, number one, number two, dirty up the prosecutors and anyone who opposes us, they probably --

Jim Sciutto: It's also the case with the most tactile piece of evidence, arguably of Trump's attempts to overturn the election, a recorded phone call of Trump to state election officials saying, find the votes to overturn the election. And for weeks, there's been almost no discussion of that piece of evidence as it relates to this case. It's about a relationship and how it affects the prosecution. And that, in itself, is a loss, right, in the court of public opinion.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: And important to say here, the judge also in this decision did say there was no -- they did not find evidence of a conflict of interest as well. But to your point, in terms of having a distraction hang over this case, that's going to matter here, you know, especially if you're the Trump campaign. Something to point to, to basically continue the rhetoric around the fact that this is, a quote/unquote, witch hunt against you, which we know he's trying to. He is using these courtrooms almost as a way to galvanize his base.

Laura Barron-Lopez: For his campaign. Scott, I mean, how do you see what we saw this week, whether Fani Willis being able to carry on in prosecuting the case in Georgia, the classified documents development, as well as now this delay in the New York hush money case, does that also impact the federal Jack Smith special counsel case into the January 6th insurrection?

Scott Macfarlane: It frees up the schedule if they want to put that thing back on the calendar.

I still argue that case is just different. That's the one that resonates most with Americans because that's the case they kind of watched on live television. They watched the efforts to overturn the 2020 election. They watched the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

And there is something cathartic for Americans and the victims among Capitol Police and congressional staff to just see a trial. Put the outcome aside, to see a trial for what everybody watched on T.V. is just a little bit different than the other three cases. I think it's one with which Americans are most viscerally connected. All of this is now in the hands of the Supreme Court, April 25th. They'll decide, they'll hear oral arguments.

Jim Sciutto:  They'll hear it. We don't know when they will decide.

Todd Zwillich: When will they decide is the question. They've given themselves a lot of time.

Scott Macfarlane: And the real estate is shrinking. I mean, if they take a month or two to come up with that ruling, the judge in the case, Judge Tanya Chutkan, has pledged she's going to give the parties a few more months to get ready for trial because her clock has been halted.

All of this gets right into September and October, and you have to ask yourself, is it really tenable to have that trial literally days before potentially breaching Election Day.

Laura Barron-Lopez: But what's striking is that we may very well reach November. And, I mean, will any of these cases have gone to trial?

Todd Zwillich: It looks like -- I say, looks like. Don't predict that any these trials will have got off on time. It still looks the hush money, election interference, Stormy Daniels case in Manhattan likely will go forward before the trial.

So, today we got a delay because new documents came in from the Southern District of New York into -- right into this trial at a very late stage. People are still trying to figure out where these documents were a year ago, two years ago when the prosecutors in Manhattan first asked for them. But at any rate, they're here. Now, everybody needs time to read them. You can't just drop evidence into a case and go to trial.

So, a 30-day delay from the trial date, a 30-day -- pardon me --30-day delay from today, which is 20 days from on the trial date, that's the delay. That puts us into April. Judge Merchan will evaluate it then. But they were getting pretty close to going to trial.

And he has been intent on not allowing too much delay, he swatted away a lot of Trump lawyer attempts to dismiss, delay, sideline this trial, I think there's still a good chance that that trial, which is about a lot more than a hush money payment to an adult film star, that case is a about election interference. It's about a candidate hiding disparaging information about himself through illegal means to hide that information from the American public. That's what the case is about. I think there's still a good chance it will go.

Jim Sciutto: Two elections ago, by the way.

Todd Zwillich: That is right, 2016.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Jim, in the time that we have left, I mean, the political ramifications of this. Some voters have said they wouldn't vote for Trump if he is convicted. That's if we see a conviction. What do you see as the ramifications?

Jim Sciutto: Listen, you're right that the New York trial is most likely to happen prior to the election, but also the one most easily portrayed as a New York blue state D.A., right, on a less central and more distant alleged crime than the worst one. I mean, let's be frank, the worst alleged one which was attempting to overturn an election in all the events of January 6th.

Listen, there's a lot of blame to go around here as to why we haven't gotten to that point earlier, including the attorney general's decisions, when to appoint the special counsel, how quickly they moved, et cetera. But those are the cards we're dealt with. The American people have a lot of the evidence at least before them before they vote, and it's going to be up to them to make a decision.

Fundamentally, that's the most likely outcome, that the decision will come in the ballot box as opposed to in the courtroom.

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