Former presidents often choose between a private life and staying in the public eye. Take George Washington’s retreat to privacy versus the continued spotlight for figures like Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Enter Donald Trump, who maintained his position as the lead contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2023 amid a cascade of legal challenges, prompting pundits to exhaust the term “unprecedented.” Prior to Trump’s 91 charges spanning four indictments, no former U.S. President had faced even a single indictment.
The legal saga began in March in New York, linking Trump to attempts to conceal an affair with an adult-film actress. Subsequent federal charges in June revolved around classified documents, while charges in August, both federal and in Georgia, related to his endeavors to overturn the 2020 election loss. These cases, unprecedented in scope, will shape the 2024 campaigns and strain the justice and political systems. Meanwhile, they test the system’s ability to hold a former President accountable while fitting into Trump’s narrative of perpetual victimhood due to political retaliation.
The Manhattan district attorney’s initial charges, while grabbing headlines, face challenges in proving their merit. Hinging on an untested legal theory, the case revolves around Trump potentially being charged in New York for falsifying business records to cover up state election-law violations and exceeding federal tax contribution limits. In contrast, Special Counsel Jack Smith’s cases carry weight. He filed the first federal charges against Trump over classified documents taken to his Mar-a-Lago residence after his presidency ended. Subsequent charges allege Trump conspired to subvert American democracy, linking him to the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021. This second case triggered an extraordinary request to the Supreme Court to determine if Trump had immunity from prosecution for actions during his presidency, aiming to expedite proceedings for a potential trial early next year.
However, the most persistent threat to Trump’s legal standing emerges in Georgia, where Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis contends Trump was central to a broad conspiracy to reverse election results. This case operates independently of federal proceedings, ensuring its continuation even if Trump secures the presidency and attempts to halt federal charges. Evidence in Georgia, including Trump’s recorded request to find votes, seems compelling, with individuals directly in contact with Trump cooperating with prosecutors.
Trump’s legal battles crowd his 2024 calendar, competing with crucial moments in his potential presidential campaign. In January, concurrent with the Iowa caucuses, a civil trial over defaming writer E. Jean Carroll awaits, alongside a class-action lawsuit accusing Trump and his company of a pyramid scheme. March brings the federal trial over Jan. 6, potentially overlapping with Super Tuesday primaries. Later that month, the New York State hush-money case commences, followed by court dates in May for the classified-documents case. Georgia prosecutors might initiate Trump’s trial in early August.
Adding to the mix is the recent move by the Colorado Supreme Court, removing Trump from the Republican primary ballot and asserting his ineligibility for the White House under the U.S. Constitution’s insurrection clause. This case is poised for the U.S. Supreme Court, marking one of several instances where the nine justices may weigh in on Trump’s fate in the coming months.
Trump, previewing his likely belligerent stance in criminal trials, testified in November in a civil fraud trial that threatens his Manhattan real estate empire. Under oath, he admitted adjusting property valuations and reviewing annual reports but faced scolding from the judge for evasive behavior, exaggerated claims, and insults hurled at adversaries. Despite Trump’s resilience in the Republican Party, the outcomes of these cases could significantly impact the November election. While polls indicate Trump leading Joe Biden in a general-election matchup, a notable number of Trump-leaning voters express openness to supporting Biden if Trump is convicted.
This situation poses a substantial test for American democracy, pushing the justice and political systems beyond their designed capacities. Trump’s statements about using the Justice Department to punish political enemies if he returns to the White House only add to the complexity, as he suggests the genie has been released by the act of charging him in court.