Trump’s legal travails | WORLD
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Sound and fury

Trump spins legal challenges into campaign gold

Donald Trump Sean Rayford / The New York Times / Redux

Sound and fury
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On Feb. 24, an exultant Donald Trump took the stage in Columbia, S.C., after sweeping the state’s Republican primary with 60 percent of the vote. “There’s never been a spirit like this,” he told his cheering crowd of supporters.

Trump’s remarkable forward momentum comes despite a dizzying array of legal challenges confronting his campaign. As he prepares for the November election, the Republican front-runner faces four criminal prosecutions—the first ever against a former U.S. president.

Trump has decried these cases as politically motivated attacks designed to sabotage his chances of reelection. But, if he’s right, the plan doesn’t seem to be working. With Super Tuesday in the rearview and his final GOP challenger, Nikki Haley, out of the race, Trump has all but clinched his party’s nomination.

Although many legal question marks still hang over these four criminal cases, experts say none of them can disqualify Trump from regaining the Oval Office. “There is nothing that says in our Constitution that a convicted felon can’t run for president,” said John Malcolm, a legal scholar at the Heritage Foundation.

One last-ditch effort to keep Trump out of office failed March 4 when the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a Colorado court ruling to remove him from the ballot. That decision also ended several similar efforts in other states.

Still, the legal cases arrayed against Trump do pose other risks to him and his campaign. One Bloomberg poll found that 53 percent of swing state voters won’t choose Trump if he has a criminal conviction. A conviction in any of these cases could result in prison time, although Clark Neily, senior vice president for legal studies at the Cato Institute, said any prison sentence would almost certainly be suspended if Trump wins reelection.

And there’s also the logistical challenge of working a political campaign around a packed legal docket. Meanwhile, Trump’s legal penalties from other civil cases have mounted to over half a billion dollars, and his leadership PAC has spent tens of millions on his defense.

Still, none of that seems to have dented the candidate’s popularity in his own party. “I’m not a political analyst by any stretch,” Neily said. “But it does appear that the indictments of Donald Trump actually seem to have bolstered his standing.”

Here’s a look at each of the four criminal cases and where they stand.

Jack Smith

Jack Smith Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Federal election conspiracy

Originally slated first on Trump’s legal docket, special counsel Jack Smith’s election interference case is on hold until the U.S. Supreme Court decides Trump’s presidential immunity claim. Oral arguments are set for late April.

In August, Smith unveiled a four-count indictment charging the former president with conspiracy to disrupt lawful election proceedings following the 2020 presidential contest. Trump’s attorneys argue the charges are invalid since the Senate acquitted him of similar allegations in February 2021. They claim former presidents enjoy immunity from prosecution for what they do in office unless first impeached and convicted by Congress.

But a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit unanimously rejected that claim and ordered District Court proceedings to resume. Trump petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay that would allow him to request a rehearing before the appeals court’s full bench—further slowing the case’s progress. But the Supreme Court, at Smith’s request, decided to skip that back-and-forth and take up the issue directly.

Bobby Higdon is a former U.S. attorney who worked for Smith in the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section. Higdon said the DOJ has a long-standing policy protecting sitting presidents from prosecution while they hold office, and Trump’s immunity claim is an “extension” of that argument.

“As a general rule, the government has immunity from its actions because, otherwise, no one would ever make a decision,” Higdon explained. But no previous president has tried to apply this principle in such a sweeping manner. According to the Supreme Court, the key issue at stake is “whether and if so to what extent” a former president should be shielded from criminal prosecution for official actions.

Critics have questioned the timing of this case with an election looming on the horizon, but Higdon said it’s not necessarily improper since the events under investigation happened in the last election cycle.

Alvin Bragg

Alvin Bragg John Minchillo/AP

New York hush money

With Smith’s election case stalled, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s notorious hush money case will be first to trial, on March 25. “If I were Donald Trump, I’d be happy about that,” said John Malcolm of the Heritage Foundation. Experts agree this is the weakest of the four criminal suits.

Bragg’s case centers on allegations Trump used false ledger entries to hide payouts designed to keep two women from publicizing claims about extramarital affairs ahead of the 2016 election. Trump faces 34 counts of ­falsifying business records in the first degree.

Malcolm said business record charges are typically just misdemeanors under New York law. They only rise to the felony level if they are created to cover up or support ­additional crimes. It’s unclear what extra crimes Bragg is alleging, but he seems to argue Trump broke campaign finance or tax laws to sway the election in his favor.

That’s a bit of a stretch, according to the Cato Institute’s Clark Neily. “You’re essentially wasting your time with these ticky-tacky misdemeanor charges that you sort of cobbled together into a kind of a Frankenstein felony,” he said.

Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus Vance Jr., reviewed the same facts but decided not to press charges after the DOJ asked him to stand down. Neily said he’s not surprised the district attorney’s office shelved the case for so long in a city with a backlog of unsolved murders, robberies, and sexual assaults: “It’s just hard to imagine a big city DA’s office wasting their time on a case like that if it was any other defendant.”

On Feb. 15, a New York judge rejected Trump’s appeal to dismiss or delay the case. After the hearing, the former president fumed to waiting reporters, calling the trial a new form of election interference: “I’ll be here during the day, and I’ll be campaigning during the night.”

Just over a week later, in an unrelated civil fraud suit, a New York judge ordered Trump to pay $454 million in fines for falsely representing his wealth in business dealings.

Mar-a-Lago estate

Mar-a-Lago estate Justice Department via AP

Federal classified documents

On Aug. 8, 2022, FBI agents raided Donald Trump’s sprawling Mar-a-Lago estate and recovered boxes from an office and storage room containing 102 classified documents. The search followed months of National Archives and Records Administration requests and a grand jury subpoena for the materials. Trump and two aides face an array of charges for dodging investigators and hiding sensitive records.

This is the most formidable case facing Trump, according to Neily. He said the key facts aren’t in dispute: “We basically know what happened, which is that [Trump] caused a bunch of highly sensitive documents to be boxed up and shipped to his private residence in Florida.”

Trump claims he’s the target of a weaponized DOJ and pointed to the investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified emails. She faced no charges. Neily said the claim of a double standard is “not a frivolous point.” But he also said Smith has a responsibility in his own role not to turn a blind eye to what may amount to “some very serious misconduct.”

Still, this case’s May 20 trial date will almost certainly be postponed. Higdon said classified documents cases can take years to resolve since prosecutors must get permission from classifying agencies to use sensitive information in court proceedings.

The trial judge in this case, Aileen Cannon, is a Trump appointee who has come under fire for several key rulings favorable to the defendant—including a pretrial decision that earned her a rebuke from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Cannon has yet to rule on seven recently filed defense motions seeking the case’s dismissal on the grounds of presidential immunity, among other arguments.

Assuming this case does go to trial, Neily said he expects a lot of finger-pointing. But he thinks it will be hard for Trump to shift blame with so much hard evidence against him: “He’s going to be the one without a chair when the music stops.”

Fani Willis

Fani Willis John Bazemore/AP

Georgia racketeering

The last of Trump’s four indictments is District Attorney Fani Willis’ case out of Fulton County, Ga. Although this case overlaps with Smith’s, it’s not double jeopardy because this is a state-level prosecution.

Willis has pursued a strikingly different approach to Smith’s. Malcolm said the special counsel took a “rifle shot approach,” leveling just four charges at a lone defendant. Willis, on the other hand, is bringing a RICO charge. That’s a statute allowing prosecutors to bust up “racketeering activity”—essentially, organized crime rings or corrupt institutions.

According to Malcolm, Georgia’s RICO statute is much looser than its federal equivalent and most of its state-level counterparts. That allowed Willis to indict Trump and 18 other people, including high-profile advisers like Rudy Giuliani and Mark Meadows, alleging they belonged to a “criminal organization” bent on overturning a valid election.

But Malcolm said labeling a presidential campaign a racketeering enterprise sets an “astonishingly dangerous” precedent: “She’s really basically saying that everybody affiliated with the Trump reelection campaign ... might as well have been the Gambino family.”

So far, four defendants have pleaded guilty in exchange for probation, fines, community service, and a promise to testify at trial. But Malcolm said that’s a double-edged sword since their testimony is also “very impeachable” based on the “sweetheart deals” they’ve taken.

But Willis may not see the case through to trial. In early February, she admitted having a romantic relationship with a special prosecutor she appointed to work on the case. A lawyer for one of Trump’s co-defendants has asked the presiding judge to take Willis and her team off the case, ­citing a conflict of interest. If Judge Scott McAfee agrees, a new prosecutor will have to pick up where Willis left off.

No matter what happens, the case isn’t going to move forward quickly. “All this is going to delay things,” Malcolm said. “There’s no way that case is going to go to trial before the next presidential election.”

Grace Snell

Grace is a staff writer at WORLD and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.


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