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Judge Puts Off Decision on Whether to Delay Trump Documents Trial

A federal judge on Friday put off until at least March the fraught and consequential decision of whether to delay the start of former President Donald J. Trump’s trial on charges of illegally holding on to a trove of highly classified national security secrets after he left office.

But acknowledging “the evolving complexities” in the proceeding, the judge, Aileen M. Cannon, also said it would be “prudent” to push back several deadlines she had set for pretrial motions to be filed, especially those involving the classified materials at the heart of the case.

While Judge Cannon’s ruling left the question of the trial’s timing unresolved, it staked out a temporary middle ground between Mr. Trump’s lawyers and federal prosecutors in the office of the special counsel, Jack Smith.

Mr. Trump’s legal team, pursuing a persistent strategy of delay, has repeatedly asked the judge to postpone the trial until after the 2024 election. Prosecutors under Mr. Smith have admitted that the case is complicated, but have asked Judge Cannon to hold the line and stick to the current trial date of May 20.

At a hearing last week in Federal District Court in Fort Pierce, Fla., Judge Cannon, who was appointed by Mr. Trump, signaled that she was ready to make some “reasonable adjustments” to the timing of the case. She expressed concern in particular that her trial in Florida might “collide” with Mr. Trump’s other federal trial, a Washington-based proceeding on charges of plotting to overturn the 2020 election that is set to begin in early March.

In an order on Friday explaining her decision, Judge Cannon reiterated her concern that the schedules for the two federal trials “as they currently stand overlap substantially.” That, she noted, could make it difficult to ensure that Mr. Trump had “adequate time to prepare for trial and to assist in his defense.”

But Judge Cannon also said that Mr. Trump’s legal calendar — he is facing a total of four criminal cases — was “less important at this stage” than the challenges presented by the large volume of discovery evidence that the defense needs to digest. It was also less significant, she said, than the various difficulties involved in handling the sensitive materials at the center of the case under a law known as the Classified Information Procedures Act, or CIPA.

Judge Cannon’s ruling left open the chance that the very sort of collision she has worried about might eventually take place. As part of her decision, she set a hearing on March 1 to determine the schedule for her case in Fort Pierce. That is only three days before Mr. Trump’s election subversion case is supposed to begin in Washington.

Her ruling also did not foreclose the possibility that she might at some point in the future delay the trial until after the election — a move that would be a major victory for Mr. Trump. Were that to happen, and were Mr. Trump to win the race, he could have the case thrown out entirely simply by ordering his attorney general to drop the charges.

Notably absent from Judge Cannon’s ruling was any mention of how the trial schedule might intersect with Mr. Trump’s increasingly busy campaign schedule. It has been a challenge to find ample time for each of Mr. Trump’s four trials not merely in relation to one another, but also against the backdrop of a rapidly approaching set of primary elections and the Republican Party’s nominating convention in July.

Judge Cannon chose to ignore Mr. Trump’s political calendar and to focus instead on logistical matters related to the nuts and bolts of the case. She pushed back several of her initial filing deadlines because of delays in constructing a secure facility in which she could review classified materials and because at least one lawyer in the case only recently obtained a full security clearance.

She also said she was anticipating that the legal battles between the defense and the prosecution over how many — and precisely which — classified materials should be handed over as part of the discovery process would be “more robust than initially forecasted.”

These fights, conducted under CIPA, she said, would require her to conduct a review of a “significant volume of information,” conduct more hearings and consider motions by the defense for additional disclosures.