Explained | How will the indictments affect Donald Trump?

What is the list of fresh charges issued by the U.S. Department of Justice against the former President? Will it have a bearing on his 2024 election prospects?

Updated - December 20, 2023 12:56 pm IST

Published - August 06, 2023 02:10 am IST

This artist sketch depicts former President Donald Trump, right, conferring with defence lawyer Todd Blanche, centrd, during his appearance at the Federal Courthouse in Washington on August 3, 2023. Special Prosecutor Jack Smith sits at left.

This artist sketch depicts former President Donald Trump, right, conferring with defence lawyer Todd Blanche, centrd, during his appearance at the Federal Courthouse in Washington on August 3, 2023. Special Prosecutor Jack Smith sits at left. | Photo Credit: AP

The story so far:

The U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) brought its third indictment against former President Donald Trump this week, with the latest charges relating to his role in blocking the peaceful transfer of power by seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. The two prior indictments include felony charges relating to, respectively, hush money paid to cover up an affair that Mr. Trump had with an adult films star, and his illegal retention of top-secret documents after his time in the Oval Office had ended. The question on most American voters’ mind is what impact that these three indictments, and possibly several more to come in the months ahead, will have on Mr. Trump’s prospects in the 2024 presidential election, and in turn how that will affect the overall outcome of that election.

Also Read | Donald Trump ineligible to run for President in Colorado, says U.S. State’s Supreme Court

What are the specific charges faced by Trump for the 2020 election indictment?

The four charges against Mr. Trump in the 2020 election case include conspiracy to defraud, witness tampering, conspiracy against the rights of citizens, and obstruction of and attempt to obstruct an official proceeding. The conspiracy charges relate to Mr. Trump’s multiple attempts to portray the outcome of the election, which was won by current President Joe Biden, as fraudulent, particularly by attacking the use of postal ballots, which were used widely given the pandemic-related lockdowns and movement restrictions in place at the time.

Editorial | Strike three: On the indictment of former U.S. President Donald Trump

While the obstruction charges indirectly relate to the actions of Mr. Trump on January 6, 2021, when he is alleged to have incited a violent mob to lay siege to the Capitol buildings in Washington, the indictment does not include a single count that directly accused Mr. Trump of immediate responsibility for the mob subsequently damaging public property and injuring at least 140 law enforcement officials in its wake.

In late 2022, the House of Representatives select committee investigating the January 6 attack had recommended that Mr. Trump should be charged with multiple federal crimes including “inciting insurrection” — the core charge that might have led to Mr. Trump being held directly responsible for the violence. However, the DoJ’s Special Counsel Jack Smith, who is leading the prosecution for this indictment, did not include the incitement charge on this occasion, for reasons that are not yet clear.

One potential explanation is that the DoJ could opt to bring new charges, including incitement to insurrection, against Mr. Trump at a future date, perhaps allowing more time for prosecutors to gather incriminating evidence of the same, especially from the accounts of those accused as his co-conspirators, including members of his legal team.

The obstruction of an official proceeding charge relates to the attempt to halt the certification of the 2020 election results by lawmakers, a process which was underway when the attack occurred. The wide-ranging Justice Department investigation that followed has led to the arrest and prosecution of more than 1,000 people.

What are the other active and potential indictments?

Unrelated to the 2020 election case against Mr. Trump, he is already facing separate federal felony charges over allegedly obstructing an investigation into the presence of more than 300 classified documents at Mr. Trump’s private resort in Mar-a-Lago, Florida, after he had demitted office. He also has to answer criminal charges relating to financial irregularities linked to his alleged payment of $130,000 as hush money payments to adult films star Stormy Daniels in 2016.

In the 2019 case brought by Writer E. Jean Carroll, who had accused Mr. Trump of having raped her in the dressing room of a department store in New York City in the mid-1990s, a New York jury ruled that he was guilty of sexually abusing her. In January 2024 a federal judge will hear a civil defamation trial brought by her against Mr. Trump, who said “I never met this woman. I never saw this woman,” at a CNN townhall, and also described Ms. Carroll’s claims as “fake” and “made up.

Mr. Trump will also likely face charges in the State of Georgia this month, which relate to his and his campaign officials’ alleged attempts to overturn his 2020 election loss there, including, infamously, his call to Georgia’s Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, asking the latter to simply “find 11,780 votes” required to beat Mr. Biden.

Finally, following a three-year investigation, Mr. Trump will likely have to stand trial in October in New York in a civil lawsuit against himself, three of his eldest children, and the Trump Organization’s executive team over allegations that they committed fraud by inflating Mr. Trump’s net worth by billions of dollars in order to receive favourable loan terms. If he loses that case, he faces a potential ban on operating businesses in the State of New York.

How might the indictments affect Trump’s prospects in the 2024 election?

Mr. Trump has denounced the indictments against him as a “witch hunt” and as evidence of the “corruption, scandal, and failure” of the Biden White House.

Even as his legal team is scrambling to fight the growing list of indictments, polls suggest that Mr. Trump is ahead by a considerable margin against at least 14 Republican candidates seeking their party’s nomination for the 2024 election.

Also read | Trump indictment throws 2024 race into uncharted territory

Legal experts have argued that even if Mr. Trump is found guilty in one or more of the indictment cases, or is serving a prison term — as he well might for 20 years in the classified documents case — the U.S. Constitution does not bar him from contesting the 2024 election.

This suggests that the unprecedented situation of the U.S. being led by a convicted President, or a President who governs from prison, might not be unthinkable next year. At the very least, if Mr. Trump wins, he might be tempted to have all of his potential convictions dismissed after he has entered office.

Historically, two candidates, socialist Eugene Debs in 1920 and conspiracist Lyndon LaRouche in 1992, ran for office with criminal convictions; yet both lost their respective bids.

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