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Some former presidents retreat to privacy after the pressures of the job. (Exhibit A: George Washington.) Others find a way to stay in the spotlight. (Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter.)
Then there’s Donald Trump, who remained the front runner for the Republican presidential nomination throughout 2023 as his pileup of legal woes led pundits and reporters to wear out the word unprecedented. Before Trump’s 91 charges over four indictments, no former U.S. President had ever been indicted even once. The first indictment came in March from New York, tied to his trying to cover up an affair with an adult-film actress. Then came federal charges in June over classified documents, and charges in August in federal court and in Georgia over his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss.
The cases will shape 2024 campaigns and test the justice and political systems unlike anything the country has ever seen. In the meantime, they are testing the limits of the justice system to hold a former President accountable for his actions, while playing into Trump’s framing of himself as a perpetual victim of political retaliation.
The first charges made headlines, but may be hard to prove: the Manhattan district attorney’s case hinges on an untested legal theory that the former President could be charged in New York for falsifying business records to cover up state election-law violations and exceeding federal tax contribution limits. Special counsel Jack Smith’s cases, by contrast, look serious. He filed the first federal charges against Trump over classified documents he took to his Mar-a-Lago home after the end of his presidency. Smith followed that with charges that Trump conspired to subvert American democracy, and that the rioters who assaulted police officers and broke into the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, were acting at Trump’s direction. The attacks were “the culmination” of Trump’s “criminal conspiracies to overturn the legitimate results of the presidential election,” Smith wrote in recent court filings. (That second case is at the center of an extraordinary request Smith made this month to the Supreme Court to quickly decide whether Trump had any immunity from criminal prosecution for alleged crimes he committed while in office, as his lawyers have claimed. As the issue is expected to eventually reach the Supreme Court, Smith’s request is intended to get it settled faster in hopes of ensuring a trial can be held early next year.)
Yet the most persistent legal threat Trump faces may be in Georgia, where Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis says Trump was at the center of a broad conspiracy to reverse election results in that state. The case is outside the purview of the federal government, so it will continue even if he’s elected President and is able to shut down federal cases against him. The evidence in Georgia seems intuitive—Trump’s on tape asking the secretary of state to find him votes to win—and several people who were directly in touch with Trump have flipped and are cooperating with prosecutors.
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Trump’s trials are filling up his 2024 calendar, competing with key moments for his presidential campaign. In January, as the Iowa caucuses kick off, he faces a civil trial over defaming writer E. Jean Carroll a second time when he denied raping her in the 1990s, and a class-action lawsuit accusing Trump and his company of a pyramid scheme. In March, Trump’s federal trial over Jan. 6 may start a day before the Super Tuesday primaries. The New York State hush-money case is set to begin later that month, and Trump’s classified-documents case has court dates scheduled for May. Georgia prosecutors may launch Trump’s trial there in early August.
And then there’s the recent move by the Colorado Supreme Court to strip Trump from the Republican primary ballot and asserting he is ineligible for the White House under the U.S. Constitution’s insurrection clause. That case is likely headed for the U.S. Supreme Court, one of what could be multiple moments in which the nine justices find themselves weighing in on Trump’s fate in the coming months.
Trump previewed the belligerent tone he is likely to take with his criminal trials when he took the stand in November in a civil fraud trial that threatens to dismantle the Manhattan real estate empire he built his name on. In that case, Trump admitted under oath that he had adjusted the valuations of some of his properties and that he was involved in reviewing the Trump Organization’s annual reports. But he also had to be repeatedly scolded and reined in by the judge, as he ignored questions, made exaggerated claims, and hurled insults at his adversaries, including New York Attorney General Letitia James, whom he called a “political hack.”
Trump’s strong standing in the Republican Party never wavered as he surrendered in arraignment after arraignment this year. Yet the outcome of those cases could have an outsize impact on the outcome in November. While some recent polls show Trump leading Joe Biden in a general-election matchup, some also find a significant number of Trump-leaning voters open to backing Biden if Trump is convicted.
All of that adds up to a major test for American democracy, one that the justice and political systems were not designed to handle. Trump is already telling the country that he will use the Justice Department to punish his political enemies if he returns to the White House. “If I happen to be President and I see somebody who’s doing well and beating me very badly, I say, ‘Go down and indict them,’” Trump recently told Univision. By charging him in court, Trump said, “they’ve released the genie out of the box.”
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