In the coming months, Donald Trump’s mounting legal troubles could get even worse. At least three investigations could bring more criminal charges against him.
Federal officials are investigating both Trump’s handling of classified documents and his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, culminating in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Separately, a grand jury in Georgia could charge Trump by September for his attempts to change the state’s election results. Any of these charges could carry prison time.
Charges are not guaranteed. “It is certainly possible that there will be more indictments,” my colleague Alan Feuer, who is covering the federal inquiries, told me. “But it is also certainly possible that there aren’t.”
A trial or a conviction also would not necessarily stop Trump from running for president. He might not be tried or convicted before the 2024 election. He could campaign from prison, as the socialist candidate Eugene Debs did in 1920. Some legal experts believe he could even try to govern from prison, should he win the presidency.
Trump is already the first president, current or former, to be charged with a crime. The Manhattan district attorney has accused him of an illegal scheme to cover up potential sex scandals in 2016. And last month, a jury found Trump liable in a civil case for $5 million for sexual abuse and defamation.
Documents in Mar-a-Lago
The classified-documents case may be close to wrapping up. In August, an F.B.I. search at Trump’s home in Florida turned up more than 100 classified documents that were supposed to remain in the government’s possession. The Justice Department is trying to determine whether Trump hid documents after he had been served with a subpoena ordering him to return them.
One piece of potential evidence in the case, revealed this week: Prosecutors have a recording of Trump discussing a sensitive military document that he kept after leaving the White House and that he acknowledged was not previously declassified.
It is not that unusual for officials to misplace classified documents or keep them in their homes, often by accident. Such documents were found in the homes of President Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence. What is unusual in Trump’s case is his efforts to keep the documents after federal officials asked for them back. Those efforts may expose him to charges of obstruction of justice.
There are a few reasons prosecutors might not charge Trump. The underlying offense — the mishandling of classified documents — is often resolved without charges; officials return the files and prosecutors move on. And given that any charges against Trump could lead to a fierce political backlash, the Justice Department could deem the cost of prosecution too high.
(These Times graphics take you behind the scenes at Mar-a-Lago.)
The Jan. 6 attack
The other federal investigation is focused on Trump’s efforts to stay in power after he lost the 2020 election.
One part of the investigation may be focused on whether Trump incited violence on Jan. 6. On social media and at his rallies, he falsely claimed he won the 2020 election and demanded state officials change results in his favor. In late December 2020, Trump called for a “wild” protest on Jan. 6, 2021. At a rally that morning, he directed the crowd to “fight like hell” and march on the Capitol. After they became violent, he waited hours before asking them to go home.
Prosecutors have also charged hundreds of other suspects in the attack and may feel compelled to charge the person they see as the chief inciter.
Still, the potential case against Trump has weaknesses: He never explicitly ordered an attack or told his supporters to storm the Capitol. He did eventually encourage them to disperse.
Beyond Jan. 6, federal prosecutors could bring other charges related to Trump’s schemes to remain in the White House. “It is not only an enormous case to prove in terms of the number of witnesses and the complexities of gathering evidence — it is also legally very complicated,” Alan said.
The inquiry in Georgia has a clearer timeline. The Fulton County district attorney, Fani Willis, has said that if a grand jury hands down charges, it will do so by September. A separate special grand jury, which could recommend charges but not indict, has already recommended multiple indictments.
The Georgia case could involve multiple defendants and could focus on racketeering charges over a scheme to undermine the election. Prosecutors could argue Trump and his team worked together to try to overturn the 2020 results, committing multiple crimes along the way.
Willis has a big piece of evidence: an audio recording in which Trump asked Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” nearly 12,000 votes to flip the state’s tally in his favor.
The biggest challenge for prosecutors could come down to proving Trump’s intent. For example, in the phone call, was Trump demanding that Georgia officials overturn the results, or was he asking them to check whether they failed to count legitimate votes? A trial could turn on those kinds of issues.
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