Former President Donald Trump embarked on another White House run while facing a slew of legal troubles, not least the criminal probe in New York City that has now led to a felony indictment. The cases could pose distractions and produce unflattering revelations — not to mention adverse verdicts — that no presidential candidate would welcome. Trump is no normal politician, though, and the legal scrutiny could feed his preferred narrative that he is being unfairly targeted by the current Democratic administration and a “deep state” bureaucracy.
1. What was Trump indicted for?
Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in a case brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office. He stands accused of concealing payments on the eve of the 2016 election to pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels, intended to keep her from going public with her allegations of a sexual encounter with Trump. The case asserts that records of the Trump Organization were falsified as part of a scheme to violate election laws. Trump denies the affair and pleaded not guilty on April 4, the day the indictment was unsealed. Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, a key player in the alleged scheme, admitted he facilitated payments and was reimbursed by the Trump Organization for advancing the money to Daniels. Cohen pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance charges and other violations in 2018 and was sentenced to three years in prison. Cohen implicated Trump in his plea — which referred to Trump as “Individual-1.”
2. What’s the status of other possible criminal prosecutions?
• The FBI said it found 11 sets of documents bearing classified markings at Trump’s home at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, a number of which were marked top secret. In their search warrant, agents said they were investigating a potential violation of the Espionage Act — which makes it a crime to remove or misuse national-defense information — along with obstruction of justice and violation of a law prohibiting the removal or destruction of government records. Days after Trump announced his candidacy, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Jack Smith, the former head of the Justice Department’s public integrity section, as special counsel to take over the probe.
• Smith is also overseeing a Justice Department inquiry into whether Trump or people tied to him instigated the violent attack on the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as Congress was certifying the results of the 2020 election. The Democrat-led House of Representatives committee that investigated the Capitol riot voted on Dec. 19 to recommend that the Justice Department charge Trump with insurrection and other crimes — though such criminal referrals from Congress carry no legal weight on their own. Republicans have since taken control of the House.
• In Georgia, Atlanta District Attorney Fani Willis is investigating whether Trump broke the law in his attempts to alter the results of the state’s 2020 vote. In a Jan. 2, 2021, phone call, Trump urged Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” him 11,780 votes — one more than Joe Biden’s margin of victory in the state. A special grand jury that heard evidence in the case finished its work by submitting a report to Willis, who says her decision on whether to bring charges will be announced sometime between July 11 and Sept. 1. The foreperson of that special grand jury, in media interviews that Trump’s lawyers condemned, said the panel’s recommendations included indicting more than a dozen people, and she hinted that Trump was among them.
• On Dec. 6, following a weeks-long trial, two units of his family business, the Trump Organization, were found guilty of engaging in a 13-year tax-evasion scheme. A Manhattan jury found the two units guilty of all 17 counts including scheme to defraud, conspiracy, criminal tax fraud and falsifying business records. Trump himself wasn’t charged. The two companies were assessed a $1.6 million fine. With a felony on its record, the Trump Organization could be barred from further contracts with government agencies and could have trouble doing business with banks. Lawyers for both units said they would appeal.
3. Could any of this disqualify Trump as a presidential candidate?
Most likely not. Article II of the US Constitution, which lays out qualifications for the presidency, says nothing about criminal accusations or convictions. Trump opponents see two possible avenues to challenging his eligibility, however. One is a federal law barring the removal or destruction of government records: It says anyone convicted of the offense is disqualified from federal office. This could conceivably apply if — and this is a big if — Trump is charged and convicted for taking classified documents from the White House. The other is the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. It says nobody can hold a seat in Congress, or “any office, civil or military,” if they “engaged in insurrection or rebellion.” Two advocacy groups have said they would sue to try to make sure the 14th Amendment prohibition applies to Trump.
4. Where do the civil cases stand?
• A civil suit filed by New York Attorney General Letitia James against Trump and three of his children is perhaps the biggest threat to the former president’s wealth, as well as his image as a successful businessman. It accuses them and their real estate company of fraudulently manipulating the value of assets for years to deceive banks and insurers. James is seeking $250 million in disgorgement and a permanent ban on the four Trumps doing business in New York. She’s already succeeded in winning a court order for an independent monitor to oversee the Trump Organization, a move that could bring unprecedented scrutiny to the former president’s finances.
• A trial began on April 25 in a case brought by New York advice columnist E. Jean Carroll, who sued Trump for battery and defamation stemming from her claim that he raped her in a department store dressing room in the 1990s. The suit was filed under New York’s new Adult Survivors Act, which lifted the statute of limitations for one year on civil claims for sexual offenses. When Carroll first made her accusation in 2019, Trump said she was “not his type” and that she made up the claim to boost sales of her book.
• Trump, his company and his three oldest children are also facing a class-action lawsuit filed in 2018 by four investors who claimed that they were duped by Trump’s promotions into paying thousands of dollars to become independent sellers with ACN Opportunity LLC, which sold a doomed videophone device that Trump touted as the next big thing. The devices were made obsolete by smartphones. Trump sat for questions in October.
• Trump was sued by 12 Democratic lawmakers accusing him of sparking the Jan. 6 riot. Multiple Capitol police officers also sued Trump for physical injuries and racist abuse suffered during that day. Through appeals, Trump is trying to get the cases dismissed.
• Mary Trump, the former president’s niece, sued her uncle, his late brother and older sister for allegedly cheating her out of her share of the family fortune. Donald Trump won dismissal of the lawsuit on Nov. 14; Mary Trump is seeking to have it reinstated.
• A group of Michigan voters sued Trump and his reelection campaign in 2020 for mass voter suppression, particularly among Black voters. Trump’s attempt to dismiss the case was partially granted; the Michigan group sought more time to file a second complaint.
5. Do these cases hurt him politically?
In polling that has remained remarkably steady, roughly 53% of Americans say they view Trump unfavorably compared with 43% who view him favorably. He continues to hold a substantial lead among Republican voters as their pick for the 2024 nomination. A recent Economist/YouGov poll showed that views of Trump’s legal travails largely align with how people view him more generally. Offered the basic outline of the hush-money charge, without Trump’s name attached, poll respondents overwhelmingly agreed that it’s “a crime for a candidate for elected office to pay someone to remain silent about an issue that may affect the outcome of an election.” But when the question was rephrased to be specifically about Trump, just 15% of Republicans called it a “very serious” issue, compared with 53% of Democrats. Trump has long tried to cast lawsuits against him and investigations into his conduct as politically motivated, calling them “hoaxes” and “witch hunts.”
--With assistance from Zijia Song.
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