A federal judge on Wednesday put on hold all of the proceedings in former President Donald J. Trump’s trial on charges of plotting to overturn the 2020 election as his lawyers asked an appeals court to move slowly in considering his claim that he is immune from prosecution in the case.
The separate but related moves were part of an ongoing struggle between Mr. Trump’s legal team and prosecutors working for the special counsel, Jack Smith, over the critical question of when the trial will actually be held. It is now scheduled to begin in Washington in March.
On Wednesday morning, Mr. Trump’s lawyers asked the federal appeals court to avoid setting an expedited schedule as it considered whether to dismiss the election subversion charges based on the former president’s sweeping claims of executive immunity.
In a 16-page filing that blended legal and political arguments, the lawyers asked a three-judge panel of the court not to move too quickly in mulling the question of immunity, saying that a “reckless rush to judgment” would “irreparably undermine public confidence in the judicial system.”
“The manifest public interest lies in the court’s careful and deliberate consideration of these momentous issues with the utmost care and diligence,” wrote D. John Sauer, a lawyer who is handling the appeal for Mr. Trump.
On Wednesday afternoon, the trial judge overseeing the election case, Tanya S. Chutkan, handed Mr. Trump a victory by suspending all “further proceedings that would move this case towards trial” until the appeal of the immunity issue is resolved.
Mr. Trump’s lawyers had requested the pause when they first decided to challenge Judge Chutkan’s rejection of the former president’s immunity claim. Mr. Trump had argued in his initial motion to dismiss the case that he was “absolutely immune” to the election interference charges because they were based on actions he took while he was in office.
The former president’s filing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit came two days after prosecutors working for Mr. Smith asked the same judges to fast-track the appeal. The prosecutors argued that keeping the underlying case moving forward would vindicate the public’s interest in a speedy trial.
Mr. Smith has also filed a parallel request to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to consider the immunity issue even before the appeals court does and to issue their decision quickly. Mr. Trump’s lawyers have until Dec. 20 to respond to that request.
In another move on Wednesday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a separate case with a bearing on Mr. Trump’s prosecution. The court said it would consider whether the former president and hundreds of people who have been prosecuted for the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol can be charged in those cases under a federal law that makes it a crime to corruptly obstruct or impede an official proceeding.
Winning the appeal of the immunity issue has been only one of Mr. Trump’s goals. All along, he and his lawyers have had an alternate strategy: to delay the trial on election interference charges for as long as possible.
If Mr. Trump is able to postpone the trial until after next year’s election and ultimately wins the race, he will have the power to simply order the charges to be dropped. Holding a trial after the race would also mean that voters would not have had a chance to hear any of the evidence that prosecutors collected about Mr. Trump’s expansive efforts to reverse the results of the previous election.
Mr. Smith’s team has never explicitly suggested that they are worried that if Mr. Trump is re-elected he will use his political victory as a means to quash his legal problems. Instead, they have framed their concerns about the scheduling of the case in a different way, saying they are seeking to protect the enormous public interest in seeing the case resolved in a timely fashion.
Mr. Sauer rejected that position in his filing to the appeals court, accusing Mr. Smith of using the case to damage Mr. Trump’s candidacy.
“The date of March 4, 2024, has no talismanic significance,” he wrote. “Aside from the prosecution’s unlawful partisan motives, there is no compelling reason that date must be maintained.”
Mr. Trump’s lawyers have long complained that the trial is itself a form of election interference. They say that the scheduled start date of March 4 is just one day before Super Tuesday, the most important date in the primary election season.
Mr. Trump’s legal team has used its immunity appeal to launch political attacks against Mr. Smith and the Biden administration and cast the indictment as a partisan effort to derail Mr. Trump’s third bid for the White House.
“The prosecution has one goal in this case: to unlawfully attempt to try, convict and sentence President Trump before an election in which he is likely to defeat President Biden,” Mr. Sauer wrote.
In his appellate papers, Mr. Sauer also complained that the sped-up schedule Mr. Smith has asked for would require Mr. Trump’s legal team to “work round-the-clock through the holidays.”
“It is as if the special counsel growled, with his Grinch fingers nervously drumming, ‘I must find some way to keep Christmas from coming,’” Mr. Sauer wrote, quoting the famous Dr. Seuss book.
In a sign of how just how fast they would like to move, prosecutors responded to Mr. Sauer’s filing within a matter of hours.
“The public’s need for a speedy resolution of these important legal issues,” they wrote, “take precedence over personal scheduling issues.”