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Trump's attorney tells NPR how he plans to defend against the latest charges

Donald Trump enters a political rally in Erie, Pennsylvania in late July.
Jeff Swensen
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Donald Trump enters a political rally in Erie, Pennsylvania in late July.

Former President Donald Trump has been summoned to appear in federal court on Thursday for his arraignment on charges that he participated in a conspiracy to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

A grand jury has indicted Trump on four counts, including conspiracy to defraud the United States.

While this is the third criminal indictment for Trump, it is the first tied to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. He has denied all wrongdoing related to the 2020 presidential election.

John Lauro is one of Trump's attorneys in this case and pushed back against special counsel Jack Smith's call for a speedy trial, saying that the right to a speedy trial belongs to defendants rather than the government.

"This is going to be one of the biggest cases in the history of the United States," he told NPR, saying his legal team wants "enough time to study the documents, be able to interview witnesses and look at the evidence in its totality."

Lauro spoke to All Things Considered's Sacha Pfeiffer on Wednesday about his legal team's strategy in this case.

So, some nuts and bolts questions first. Will Trump appear at his arraignment in person tomorrow?

Yes, the arraignment is under a summons, which is a voluntary way of requesting the presence of a party before the court and obviously the president will comply.

So virtual is not an option, he will be in person?

It can be an option in federal court. But in this instance, it's going to be in-person in Washington.

Would he like that? Are you advising him to do that?

It's really up to the court. And also, it depends on Secret Service and the United States marshals. Certainly, we have no objection to appearing in court, and that's the way that it is going to roll out.

In previous interviews, you have said that you would like a trial moved out of Washington, D.C. — which, as you've pointed out, voted heavily for Joe Biden — and perhaps moved to West Virginia. Why West Virginia in specific?

Well, we're looking for a more diverse area that has a more balanced political jury pool. You know, the country is very, very divided politically right now, this is a very divisive indictment. It goes to issues of free speech and political activity. So, we're looking for a jury that will be more balanced. And West Virginia was a state that was more evenly divided. And we're hoping for a jury that doesn't come with any implicit or explicit bias or prejudice. So it makes sense to go to a place like West Virginia.

The special counsel, Jack Smith, has said this will be a speedy trial. Do you have any objection to try to bring this case to trial before the November 2024 election?

Well, speedy trial rights belong to the defense, not the government. The government has an obligation to turn over a lot of material and a lot of information, which they've not done yet, but they will. You know, the special counsel has, or the Biden Justice Department, has been investigating this case for three and a half years. And it just seems to me, in fairness, that we should have enough time to study the documents, be able to interview witnesses and look at the evidence in its totality, address a lot of legal issues with the judge as well. So what we want is a just trial, not simply a speedy trial. There's no need to railroad any defendant in the United States. And we're hoping the Justice Department will recognize that justice is more important than speed.

Special Counsel Jack Smith delivers remarks on the recently unsealed indictment against Donald Trump.
Alex Wong / Getty Images
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Special Counsel Jack Smith delivers remarks on the recently unsealed indictment against Donald Trump.

Do you have any sense of whether you could be ready for a trial before the November 2024 election?

Well, it depends on what information is provided. This indictment literally lists election issues in seven states. So we'll be litigating a case of unprecedented magnitude. I've been involved in large white collar cases for many years, over 40 years of practicing law, this is going to be one of the biggest cases in the history of the United States. The trial could last six months or nine months or even a year. So to expect that counsel is going to get ready in 90 days for a case like this is quite absurd.

And this is looking quite ahead, but if it does go to trial, do you anticipate that Trump would testify in the case, that you would advise him to?

Well, we have to see what the evidence is, but we're in an election cycle. The Biden administration decided to bring an indictment against a political opponent in the middle of a campaign. And the thought of President Trump having to spend his time at trial instead of actively debating and talking about the issues against his political opponent is something that I think the judge is going to consider. But more importantly, we have a challenge ahead to get ready. And there's a massive amount of information and we're entitled to look at it.

I want to talk a little about your legal strategy. Could you give us a summary of your legal defense to these criminal charges?

Well, it's not a big surprise. When you look at this indictment, it doesn't really say much other than President Trump was exercising his right to talk about the issues and advocate politically for his belief that the election was stolen and was improperly run. He got advice from counsel — very, very wise and learned counsel — on a variety of constitutional and legal issues. So, it's a very straightforward defense that he had every right to advocate for a position that he believed in and his supporters believed in. And this is the first time in the history of the United States where a sitting administration is criminalizing speech against a prior administration. It's really quite unprecedented and it really will politicize the criminal justice system, which is terrible to see.

So prosecutors are saying that these are criminal acts, but you're making the argument that former President Trump was exercising his constitutionally protected right to free speech. Is that the case you planned to make?

Exactly. And free speech encompasses political advocacy, which often involves acting on that free speech. So, for example, if I were to take a position that I believe or I don't believe, that young men should register for service, there's a Supreme Court case right on point that says I'm entitled to do that. Even though I am advocating a certain action or inaction, it's still protected by the First Amendment.

So I know you have said that you believe Trump was genuinely concerned about the integrity of the election. And the prosecutors will presumably argue that Trump was lying when he said the election was stolen or may have been stolen. I heard a previous interview you did in which you said that prosecutors would have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he had corrupt intent, which [you argue] they will never do. Is that what you see as the government's legal burden, as proving that Trump didn't really believe the election was stolen?

It's embedded in the statute that they have to prove corrupt intent under 18 U.S.C. 1512, which is the obstruction statute. And corrupt intent means that you don't believe in, not only that you don't believe in the position that you're advancing, but you're doing it for a corrupt purpose, you're doing it to obstruct a government function rather than a truth-seeking function. And here, what we will argue to the jury, and we'll win, is that President Trump was arguing for the truth to come out in that election cycle rather than the truth to be denied. Even at the end, when he asked Mike Pence to pause the voting, he asked that it be sent back to the states so that the states, in exercising their truth-seeking function, could either audit or recertify.

Quick final question before we lose you. If the government can prove that Trump lied or that he had corrupt intent, will you still argue that's free speech?

Well, political speech covers even information that turns out not to be true. So it's all protected by free speech. But at the bottom, the government will never be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, as I said, that President Trump did not believe in the righteousness of his cause.

But if they can, will you say it was free speech?

Well, the only way that they can even attempt to prove it is at the end of a trial. I'm going to be arguing that throughout the trial.

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Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.