U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan will rule on Donald Trump's January 6 lawsuit. Credit: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM

John Lauro was in a predicament last week that bodes well for the survival of the Republic. Lauro is Donald Trump’s lead attorney in the most important trial the former president faces—the one that will resolve whether he is guilty of masterminding a coup against the government and people of the United States. 

In federal court, Lauro began talking trash in a loud and aggressive manner. He sounded like he was on a cable show, not standing before the bar of justice. 

Judge Tanya Chutkan, who next year will become one of the most famous jurists in American history (even though the trial will not be televised), brought Lauro up short. Twice, she told him to “turn down the temperature.” Lauro finally comprehended that in this courtroom—in front of this judge—properly “representing” Trump means more than channeling the client’s indignation. So, he complied. 

But it was too late. Lauro had asked for a 2026 trial date—a ludicrous bid—and refused to show up with a more reasonable proposal. Bad move. With the trial scheduled for March 4, the day before Super Tuesday, Lauro is caught between his client—who wants him to pursue a noisy political case in court—and Judge Chutkan, who made it clear that any such strategy will blow up in the Orange Menace’s face. 

Lauro knows he must do it Trump’s way or be fired, which means he’ll put on a blustery MAGA defense in front of a District of Columbia jury that isn’t likely to buy it. 

And so, in a few days, the notion of the Republican Party nominating a convicted felon for president has gone from liberal fantasy to strong possibility. 

While Trump’s attorneys will file various motions to delay his trial, legal experts are predicting they will be quickly adjudicated—often by Chutkan herself. And there is no provision in federal law for a higher court to overturn a trial date. 

The trial opening in March 2024 or, with some minor delays, April—the heart of the primary season—is likely to bolster Trump inside the GOP in the same way his indictments have. He doesn’t need to be on the campaign trail to play the victim. Even if he stumbles in the early primaries, the focus on the impending trial further solidifies his cult and helps assure him the nomination. 

But that would be a poisoned chalice. The essence of Trump’s political problem is that his base is not big enough to get him back to the White House. A conviction—now much more likely than not—would put the Republican Party in an excruciating bind. 

Imagine: The GOP nominee—out on appeal after being sentenced to house arrest—will have to describe his presidency to the independent voters who will decide his fate in the general election. A Truth Social post next summer or fall might go something like this: 

When I win, ’Tanya the Terrible’ and the other communists of the courts will try to hold me under ‘White House arrest’ in my first year. But I will pardon myself in all of these cases—federal and local—and if my Supreme Court betrays me, NO PROBLEM! I will fulfill my campaign pledge of ‘retribution’ against my enemies and, if necessary, ‘suspend the Constitution’ as I promised and declare martial law as John Eastman advised. Watch me! 

That should go over well with women in the suburbs. 

It’s one thing for Trump to talk this way now; after conviction, the idea of him literally being held prisoner in the White House after sentencing would move from fever dream to reality. 

Reality is already biting, and in a good way. With Chutkan’s early trial date in Washington and the prospect of Kenneth Chesebro and others going on trial soon in Georgia, accountability is coming much faster than anyone thought possible. 

Trump will most likely be tried first in Chutkan’s courtroom. She’s a highly experienced Jamaica-born judge who brooks no nonsense and is widely respected among her colleagues at the D.C. Circuit—the appellate court that will review her trial work. Her appointment to the federal bench in 2014 was impressively non-controversial. The Republican opposition researchers on the minority staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee dug as hard as they could and came up empty-handed. Chutkan’s nomination cleared the panel by voice vote, and in the Senate, the cloture vote by 54-40 and the confirmation vote by 95-0, with Senators Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham—now attacking her—among the Republicans voting “yea.” 

As we know from the rightwing reaction from Susan Rice and Kamala Harris to Ketanji Brown Jackson and Fani Willis, a powerful black woman brings out the racists. But even the Jim Jordans of the world need a little something to work with to draw blood beyond the base. Chutkan offers them a very small target. 

In a memorable ruling that previews how she will respond to Trump’s claims of immunity for offenses committed when he was president, Chutkan wrote in one January 6 opinion: “Presidents are not kings, and Plaintiff is not President.” Chutkan can’t say that during the trial, but her jury instructions will likely reflect it. 

And a 2017 case shows how little patience Chutkan has for delaying tactics. The watchdog National Security Archive sued the Department of Defense over its slowness in releasing documents. She told the defendants: “I don’t understand what’s taking so long. I understand that these are, you know, sensitive documents… [but] I’ve done document review in my time, more than I care to remember. It just doesn’t take that long. I mean, what’s going on?” 

Look for Chutkan to say the same kind of thing if Trump’s lawyers bleat again about the 12 million documents produced by the prosecution as part of the normal discovery process. It turns out that more than seven million of those documents were Trump tweets and other Trump content. And as prosecutors noted in an August hearing, modern cases allow for keyword searches that render obsolete complaints about “reading Tolstoy cover-to-cover 78 times a day, every day.” 

Trump’s best hope—a change of venue—doesn’t seem likely. Efforts by insurrectionists to avoid being tried in the District of Columbia have all failed. So, prepare for some momentous history to unfold next spring. The Day of Judgment is nearly upon us. 

Jonathan Alter, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is a former senior editor and columnist at Newsweek, a filmmaker, journalist, political analyst, and the publisher of the Substack, Old Goats with Jonathan Alter, where this piece originally appeared. His most recent book is His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life. 

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Jonathan Alter, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is a former senior editor and columnist at Newsweek, a filmmaker, journalist, political analyst, and the publisher of the Substack Old Goats with Jonathan Alter. His most recent book is His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.