Lawyers for former President Donald J. Trump and the federal prosecutors who charged him with illegally holding on to highly sensitive national defense documents began a first hearing on Tuesday with the judge overseeing the case to discuss the scheduling of the trial and how to handle the classified material at the heart of the prosecution.
The hearing, in Federal District Court in Fort Pierce, Fla., is the first time that Judge Aileen M. Cannon has presided over a proceeding in the case, parts of which could be closed to the public. Mr. Trump was indicted last month by the office of the special counsel, Jack Smith, on charges of illegally retaining 31 individual classified documents and of conspiring with one of his personal aides, Walt Nauta, to obstruct the government’s repeated efforts to reclaim them.
The hearing got underway hours after Mr. Trump disclosed that he had received a so-called target letter from Mr. Smith in a separate criminal investigation into his efforts to remain in office after his 2020 election loss and the ensuing attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. The target letter was an indication that Mr. Trump could face indictment in that inquiry as well.
The defense and prosecution in the documents case have clashed sharply over when the trial should begin. The government has asked Judge Cannon to start the trial in December, but lawyers for Mr. Trump and Mr. Nauta responded with a request to postpone it until all “substantive motions” were presented and resolved.
The timing of the trial could be hugely consequential, especially if it is pushed after the 2024 election. If Mr. Trump, the current front-runner for the Republican nomination, were to win, he could try to pardon himself after taking office or could have his attorney general simply dismiss the matter entirely.
In an order issued on Monday, Judge Cannon told both sides that they should be prepared to discuss the trial schedule in court on Tuesday. Her decision will be an early test of how she handles the high-stakes prosecution of the man who appointed her to the bench in 2020. While Judge Cannon was randomly assigned to the case, she has attracted much attention with rulings that were favorable to Mr. Trump in the opening stage of the investigation.
Shortly after the indictment was returned, Judge Cannon scheduled the trial to begin in August — though that appeared to be a pro forma date guided by a desire to meet requirements for a speedy trial. In a filing last week, lawyers for Mr. Trump and Mr. Nauta asked the judge to delay the trial indefinitely, claiming that the discovery evidence in the case was expansive, that the arguments over classified materials would be onerous and that Mr. Trump, as a presidential candidate, had a grueling schedule of travel and campaign events.
Prosecutors responded by saying much of the evidence had already been handed over to the defense and that many “indicted defendants have demanding jobs that require a considerable amount of their time and energy, or a significant amount of travel.”
The arguments over the classified materials were set to begin in earnest on Tuesday in a process guided by a law known as the Classified Information Procedures Act. The purpose of the law is to balance two competing interests in cases that involve classified material: ensuring that criminal defendants have sufficient access to the material to protect their due process rights and that national security is not compromised.
On Monday, prosecutors asked Judge Cannon to issue an order that would require Mr. Trump, Mr. Nauta and their lawyers to sign a formal memorandum of understanding declaring that they would not disclose any classified material they received or were permitted to review as part of the discovery process. Protective orders like these are common in cases involving classified material.