Trump trials’ comedy of errors – is legal inexperience to blame?

<span>Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Rome, Georgia, earlier this month.</span><span>Photograph: Mike Stewart/AP</span>
Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Rome, Georgia, earlier this month.Photograph: Mike Stewart/AP

You’re reading Guardian US’s free Trump on Trial newsletter. To get the latest court developments delivered to your inbox, sign up here.

Programming note: starting next week, Trump on Trial will be sent weekly on Wednesdays.

On the docket: rookie mistakes

It’s been a chaotic week in Trump’s criminal trials – and a lot of the mayhem has been caused by self-owns and missteps by the legal figures involved in his various cases.

When Judge Aileen Cannon, a federal judge with only three years of experience on the bench, issued her latest order in the criminal classified documents case on Monday, legal observers were dumbfounded.

The national security attorney Bradley Moss posted on X that her instructions were “legally insane”. Attorney George Conway, a leading #NeverTrump conservative, responded by calling it “utterly nuts”. The former US attorney Joyce Vance called it “two pages of crazy” and wrote that she had to read the order multiple times to try to figure out what it means.

“Not only should Aileen Cannon not be sitting on this case, but she should not be sitting on the federal bench at all,” Conway posted.

Cannon’s Monday order told Trump’s attorneys and the justice department’s special counsel’s office to prepare potential jury instructions for legal scenarios that, as Guardian US reporter Hugo Lowell writes, “gave extraordinary credit to Trump’s defense theories” and “were so beneficial to Trump and so potentially incorrect on the law of the Espionage Act that it would bring into serious doubt whether it made sense for prosecutors to take the case to trial”.

The order came as Cannon dragged her feet on ruling on various other provisions – and after the 11th circuit court had to step in to unanimously overturn an earlier decision from Cannon to appoint a special master to review the classified documents in the case in late 2022, writing “the law is clear” and she was wrong.

It’s an open question whether Cannon’s stumbles are down to incompetence, favoritism towards Trump, or both. But although she’s been the most egregious legal figure in all of Trump’s criminal trials in terms of her questionable actions, Cannon shares something with some of the main characters in Trump’s other criminal cases that might help explain why things keep going sideways: inexperience.

Cannon, age 43, became a federal judge in late 2020 after being appointed to the federal bench by Donald Trump, then the president. That’s not much time to actually learn the job, as she’s showing day after day after day. She took her spot on the bench around the same time as the Fulton county district attorney Fani Willis, who’s leading the prosecution of the criminal case against Trump for his attempts to overturn his 2020 election loss, was elected to office. They’re old hands compared to Georgia judge Scott McAfee, a 34-year-old who’s overseeing the case Willis has been working on and was appointed to the bench just over a year ago.

Last Friday, McAfee ruled that Willis could remain on the case – so long as special prosecutor Nathan Wade was removed (Wade resigned later that day). McAfee wrote in his order that Willis’s decision to start a financial and romantic relationship with someone she was supervising was a “tremendous lapse in judgment”.

That was another win for Trump, as Guardian US reporter Sam Levine unpacks. Willis and Wade’s romantic relationship dominated headlines, raised questions about impropriety, bruised her reputation and delayed the trial for two months as Trump and his co-defendants sought to get them removed.

And McAfee’s Wednesday decision to let Trump appeal his order means that Georgia’s court of appeals now has 45 days to consider the appeal – another delay. If the court agrees to overrule McAfee and force Willis off the case, it could be stalled indefinitely.

The one trial that had looked like a sure bet to conclude before election day hit a major bump as well – though it’s not yet clear exactly who’s at fault.

In New York, Judge Juan Merchan granted a delay until at least 15 April in Trump’s hush-money criminal trial last Thursday after Trump’s lawyers asked for more time to sift through tens of thousands of pages of evidence from the US attorney’s office in Manhattan that they hadn’t received until recent weeks. Trump’s team had asked for a three-month delay, part of their public strategy of delaying all of his trials as long as possible; the Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg had acceded to a one-month delay.

Merchan is holding a hearing on 25 March, the day the trial was originally supposed to kick off, where he’ll investigate why Trump’s team didn’t receive this information earlier – and whether the Manhattan DA or the southern district of New York’s office is to blame, and what, if anything, should be done to remedy the situation. He could also determine a new trial date.

It’s notable that Bragg has only been in his job since early 2022. We’ll know more in the coming days about whether the first-term DA made a major misstep in this case.

Sidebar: Trump’s half-billion-dollar headache

Trump’s criminal trials may be plodding along – but penalties for his civil trials are coming due.

Lawyers for Trump said on Monday he could not post a bond covering the full amount of the $454m civil fraud judgment against him, asking the courts to delay the deadline while he appeals the New York ruling from his business fraud civil trial that concluded earlier this year. Posting the bond, lawyers said, was “a practical impossibility” after 30 surety companies turned him down.

Trump and co-defendants, including his company and top executives, owe $467m with interest. To obtain a bond, Trump’s lawyers said, they would be required to post collateral worth $557m.

“A bond requirement of this enormous magnitude – effectively requiring cash reserves approaching $1bn – is unprecedented for a private company,” the Monday filing said.

Trump is clearly upset – he posted seven times in two hours on his Truth Social platform on Tuesday railing against the ruling and the judge who oversaw the case.

“I would be forced to mortgage or sell Great Assets, perhaps at Fire Sale prices, and if and when I win the Appeal, they would be gone. Does that make sense? WITCH HUNT. ELECTION INTERFERENCE!” he posted in one screed.


Trump’s attorneys filed a brief on Tuesday urging the US supreme court to find that presidents have absolute immunity from criminal prosecution for official acts they take in office and, therefore, dismiss the DC criminal case against Trump over his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Trump lost a bid to block testimony from Stormy Daniels and Michael Cohen in his New York hush-money trial.

Trump sued ABC News and host George Stephanopoulos for defamation for asserting multiple times in an interview that Trump had “raped” E Jean Carroll.

Cronies and casualties

The former Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro went to jail on Tuesday to begin serving a four-month sentence for refusing to comply with a subpoena from the House January 6 select committee, making him the first Trump White House official to face jail time for actions related to January 6 and the first former White House official ever jailed for contempt of Congress. Navarro reported to prison in Miami shortly after US supreme court Chief Justice John Roberts denied a last-minute plea for his sentence to be delayed while he appeals.

Stefanie Lambert, a lawyer who has crusaded to try to prove Trump’s claims of voter fraud in Michigan, was arrested in federal court and released on bond after refusing to comply with court orders in a separate Michigan case alleging she tampered with voting machines after the 2020 election.

Paul Manafort, Trump’s 2016 campaign manager who went to jail for tax and bank fraud before eventually being pardoned by Trump, is in talks to rejoin the Trump campaign in a role working on the Republican national convention, according to the Washington Post. A bipartisan 2020 report from the Senate intelligence committee described Manafort’s willingness to pass on confidential material to alleged Moscow agents when he worked for Trump’s 2016 campaign as a “grave counter-intelligence threat”.

What’s next

25 March A crucial hearing to see when – and whether – Trump’s hush-money trial will take place. Judge Merchan is looking to find out why Trump’s team only received tens of thousands of pages of documents of evidence in recent weeks, and potentially determine a new trial date.

25 March The deadline for when Trump’s $454m civil bond (plus interest) is due.

2 April The deadline Judge Cannon gave lawyers for Trump and the special counsel’s office to submit proposed jury instructions for a potential trial in Trump’s criminal classified documents case in Florida.

25 April The US supreme court will hold oral arguments on Trump’s claims that presidential immunity shields him from prosecution in his DC federal criminal case relating to his attempt to overturn the 2020 election.

4 May The deadline for the Georgia court of appeals to rule on whether it will overturn the decision to let Fani Willis stay on the case and allow Trump’s Georgia trial to move forward.