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Business News/ Global / A primer on Trump’s criminal trials
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A primer on Trump’s criminal trials

The Economoist

They will shape the drama of this year’s presidential election

(Photo: Reuters)Premium
(Photo: Reuters)

Editor’s note (March 18th 2024): This article has been updated to take in the latest developments.

Running for the American presidency is a full-time job. “There was essentially no day or night" from the first presidential debate in September 1976 to election day, griped James Fallows, now a journalist, who worked on Jimmy Carter’s campaign. Donald Trump, now sure of the Republican Party’s nomination for this year’s election, will have to combine that gruelling endeavour with his role as a defendant in four criminal trials. In all he faces 88 felony charges, from falsifying business records to conspiring to defraud the country. Most of his trials are scheduled to begin well before election day in November. So far, Mr Trump, who denies all the charges, has reconciled the roles of defendant and candidate by making his campaign largely about the cases against him. He rallies Republican support with his claims that he is the victim of a political witch-hunt. Whether most American voters will agree should Mr Trump face off against President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is uncertain. The revelations that emerge in court may well shape the race. These are the prosecutions that await the former president.

Election interference in Georgia

Jurisdiction: State—Fulton County, Georgia

Trial date: TBD; the prosecutor filed a motion on November 17th 2023 seeking to start on August 5th 2024

In the telling of Fani Willis, the prosecutor, Mr Trump was the boss of a criminal “enterprise" with one job: to change the result of the 2020 presidential election in Georgia, a state he lost. On August 14th 2023 Ms Willis indicted Mr Trump on charges including racketeering. She used a statute designed to target the mafia to tie the 19 co-defendants together.

Their alleged offences vary: some defendants, known as the “fake electors", are said to have submitted false paperwork to Congress claiming that Mr Trump had won Georgia. Others allegedly appealed to the state’s officials, urging them to overturn Mr Biden’s victory. Yet others reputedly harassed election workers and stole voting data. Ms Willis claims that Mr Trump unified and motivated their illegal acts. Central to the case will be a phone call from January 2021: in it, the then-president urged Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to “find 11,780 votes"—the exact number that he needed to win the state. Four defendants have so far taken plea deals and agreed to co-operate with the prosecution.

Election interference

Jurisdiction: Federal (Washington, DC)

Trial date: Originally scheduled for March 4th 2024, but delayed

Jack Smith’s indictment, alleging that Mr Trump tried to steal the 2020 presidential election, is the gravest case against the former president. Mr Smith, though appointed by Merrick Garland, America’s attorney-general, is an independent special prosecutor. That status is supposed to ensure that he has no political agenda, though of course Mr Trump’s supporters don’t accept that. On August 1st 2023 Mr Smith charged Mr Trump with conspiring to defraud the United States, obstructing an official proceeding (Congress’s certification of the electoral-college vote in favour of Mr Biden) and conspiring to deprive Americans of their right to have their votes counted. The indictment accuses Mr Trump of pulling the strings of fake electors in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin; leaning on the Department of Justice and the vice-president, Mike Pence, to carry out his “criminal scheme"; and exploiting the violence at the Capitol on January 6th 2021 to encourage lawmakers to delay certifying the vote.

Mr Trump’s lawyers argue that he should be immune from prosecution for actions he took in office related to his official duties. Ex-presidents cannot be sued in civil court for such actions, and Mr Trump wants this “absolute presidential immunity" extended to the criminal realm. Mr Smith counters that Mr Trump’s alleged overturning of election results was far from an official duty. The trial, originally due to begin on March 4th, has been delayed as a result of this immunity appeal. On February 6th a court in Washington, DC rejected Mr Trump’s argument. He requested that the Supreme Court pause that decision—in effect keeping the trial on hold.

 

(Source: The Economist)
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(Source: The Economist)

Falsifying business records

Jurisdiction: Local—New York City, New York

Trial date: Originally scheduled for March 25th 2024, but delayed until at least mid-April

In March 2023 Alvin Bragg, Manhattan’s top prosecutor, brought the first-ever criminal indictment against a former president. He charged Mr Trump with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records to cover up a $130,000 payment to a porn star, Stormy Daniels. On the eve of the presidential election in 2016 she threatened to go public about sleeping with Mr Trump. His lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid her off—and later pleaded guilty to campaign-finance violations in connection with the payment. Mr Trump is accused of covering up his reimbursements to Mr Cohen by describing them as payments for legal services.

Falsifying business records is not a felony unless it furthers another crime. Mr Bragg did not specify the additional crime in his indictment, perhaps because the clearest contender—a federal election-law violation—is not obviously within his power as a local district attorney to prosecute. The trial date was set for March 25th, but after receiving new evidence, prosecutors proposed pushing it back by 30 days. (The defence had asked for 90 days.) The judge formally granted the shorter delay on March 15th. The earliest the trial would begin is April 15th.

Mishandling classified documents

Jurisdiction: Federal (Florida)

Trial date: May 20th 2024

On June 13th 2023, in a separate case brought by Mr Smith, Mr Trump was arraigned in a court in Florida on 37 charges in connection with his alleged mishandling of classified documents after leaving the White House. The prosecutor brought most of the charges under the Espionage Act of 1917, which makes it a crime to hold secret government documents without authorisation. The former president is said to have retained records about America’s nuclear-weapons programme and other countries’ military capabilities. Mr Trump is also accused of obstructing investigators. On July 27th 2023 the prosecutors brought new charges, accusing him of attempting to destroy evidence.

They allege that the former president was aware that retaining and leaking secret papers was a serious crime; that he stashed them in insecure places and refused an order to hand them over; and that he bragged about their contents. The indictment claims that the documents were boxed up in various locations at Mar-a-Lago, the private club in Florida where Mr Trump lives. These include a ballroom, a shower and a storage room that the public could get to from the club’s pool patio.

Even more trials

There are civil trials, too. In May 2023 a jury in Manhattan found Mr Trump liable for sexually abusing E. Jean Carroll, an author, in the 1990s, and of later defaming her. On January 26th a different jury awarded her over $83m in damages. New York state has accused Mr Trump of inflating his net worth to secure better loans. The judge found Mr Trump liable for fraud before proceedings even kicked off, and on February 16th ordered him to pay $355m (plus interest) and barred him from holding a top job in a New York corporation for three years. The first civil trials did little to sway voters who favour Mr Trump. The full effects of the criminal ones remain to be seen. Thus far they have bolstered his popularity among Republicans.

© 2024, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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Published: 13 Apr 2024, 03:01 PM IST
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