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Autumn court showdown could be last chance to stop a Trump presidency

A silver lining has emerged for Trump opponents in the US Supreme Court’s shock Monday ruling on presidential immunity. It will allow American justice one last chance to help prevent convicted felon Donald Trump from regaining the keys to the White House.

The justices have asked Washington DC judge Tanya Chutkan to hold a pre-trial, evidentiary hearing in the autumn for the case in which Trump is accused of a conspiracy to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election.

Special counsel Jack Smith won’t be able to prosecute Trump in these hearings – but he will be able to parade much of the evidence against him, as Judge Chutkan decides what remains admissible under the immunity ruling.

Smith will call his big-gun witnesses, including former vice-president Mike Pence, who Trump pressured to wrongly certify the election result in his favour.

One leading commentator has already predicted it will be like a 6 January Capitol riot hearing on steroids – right in the run-up to the vote in November.

Only one paragraph of Smith’s in the indictment – relating to Trump’s direct dealings with his then acting attorney general – is automatically proscribed by the ruling on absolute immunity for official presidential acts.

Evidence relating to the rest of the indictment can be aired in public.

If Judge Chutkan exhibits her previous desire for proceeding quickly with hearings related to the trial, then by September or October, America may see a quasi-trial unfolding in the nation’s capital in what could be the homestretch of the presidential election campaign.

As such, legal analyst Norm Eisen of the Brookings think-tank said that even after the heavy-handed immunity ruling, Trump may still be held accountable for trying to overturn the last election.

“The Scotus [Supreme Court of the US] immunity ruling is terrible – but not all hope is lost. Far from it, a mini-trial in DC can illuminate Trump’s 2020 election interference wrongdoing,” he tweeted.

“It’s going to put some of the most disturbing elements of the attempted coup on trial for the American people, for the court and the American people to consider.”

He told CNN he believed much of Smith’s 2020 election interference allegations would “be able to continue under this new test” of the immunity ruling.

But this will only happen if Trump is kept out of the White House, and thus denied the chance to order Justice Department officials to drop the case.

Often, prosecutors prefer not to reveal all their cards ahead of big trials. But Smith knows that unless Trump is kept out of the White House, he will have no chance of prosecuting him. And anyway, the Supreme Court ruling requires his evidence to be scrutinised.

“Jack Smith is going to have to turn over every single one of them… every witness he has; he’s going to bring them into that courtroom,” MSNBC analyst Lawrence O’Donnell noted on Monday night.

“They’re all going to be under oath and the defence is going to be able to cross-examine them … So you’re going to see this incredible Jan. 6 hearing on steroids possibly for six to eight weeks in September to October.”

Todd Landman, an expert on the US constitution and director of the Rights Lab at Nottingham University, says this is “absolutely” a chance for the prosecutors to highlight evidence of Trump’s most serious crimes just before the election, “and all mandated by the Supreme Court”, although he says some voters might see the hearing “as deep state stuff, it may not shift the dial”.

Another American political pundit, Patricia Crouse at the University of New Haven, thinks the evidentiary hearing would be “a good reminder of what a horrible human being Trump is right before the election”.

She adds: “The left in America here is furious about the [Supreme] Court’s decision. If they can hold on to that anger until November it might help. Some have said that after that decision, they would vote for Biden even if he were dead.”

The autumn will be notable in the tortured legal history of Donald Trump for another reason.

On Tuesday, Judge Juan Merchan, who oversaw Trump’s hush payments trial in Manhattan, in which he was found guilty on 34 counts of falsifying records to cover up politically damaging payments to a porn star, agreed to delay sentencing until September.

Trump’s lawyers have claimed that some of the evidence used by Manhattan prosecutors related to statements made by Trump while in office and is therefore invalid under the Scotus immunity ruling. Judge Merchan might move to strike the prosecution, order a retrial – or could decide the verdict stands and give Trump parole or even jail time.

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