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What Trump Investigations Mean for a Trump Candidacy

Former President Donald Trump embarked on another White House run while facing a slew of legal troubles, with criminal indictments and maybe a civil trial or two threatening to interrupt his campaign. Though not disqualifying, the cases could pose distractions and produce unflattering revelations 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 are the legal cases?

Trump faces possible criminal charges by the US Justice Department over classified documents found at his home at Mar-a-Lago in Florida and his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, as well as by Atlanta’s district attorney over his attempts to change the 2020 Georgia election results. “All these bodies are active and not subject to his control and could issue an indictment almost at any time,” said Kevin O’Brien, a former federal prosecutor in Brooklyn. On the civil side, Trump’s hurdles include a lawsuit filed by New York Attorney General Letitia James that accuses him and three of his children of fraudulently manipulating the value of the company’s assets for years.

2. Could any of this disqualify him as a presidential candidate?

Broadly speaking, no. 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 to Trump if -- and this is a big if -- he’s charged and convicted for taking classified documents from the White House. The other is the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. It says that nobody can hold a seat in Congress, or “any office, civil or military,” if they “engaged in insurrection or rebellion.” At least two advocacy groups have said they will argue that this applies to Trump because he incited and failed to stop the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol as Congress was certifying the results of the 2020 election. 

3. Do these cases hurt him politically?

A Quinnipiac University poll in August found that 50% of Americans said Trump should face criminal charges for mishandling classified documents. In a Marist Poll taken at about the same time, 47% of Americans said Trump did something illegal or unethical and should be charged. But Trump’s hardcore supporters have proven to be unwavering. A New York Times/Siena College poll in September found that 44% of voters viewed Trump favorably, similar to the level of support found in recent years. Trump has long tried to cast lawsuits against him and investigations into his conduct as politically motivated, calling them “hoaxes” and “witch hunts.” Signs calling for the Federal Bureau of Investigation to be defunded and Attorney General Merrick Garland fired have become common among Trump supporters. “Within some segments of his base of support, his popularity would be bolstered by criminal charges,” said Barbara McQuade, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at the University of Michigan Law School.

4. What’s the status of the criminal cases?

• In what may be the most serious criminal jeopardy, the FBI said it found 11 sets of documents bearing classified markings at Mar-a-Lago, 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, Garland appointed Jack Smith, the former head of the Justice Department’s public integrity section, as special counsel to take over the probe.

• Another investigation that Smith will run involves Trump’s actions related to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Trump urged his supporters to gather in Washington, then exhorted them to march to the Capitol. Lawyers for the Democrat-led House of Representatives Jan. 6 committee have suggested Trump and some of his allies could be charged with trying to obstruct congressional certification of the 2020 election and also defrauding the US.

• 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.

• Trump’s family business, the Trump Organization, went on criminal trial on Oct. 31 in New York, accused of participating in a 15-year tax-evasion scheme.  The company’s longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, is the only individual charged in that case. He has pleaded guilty and promised to testify truthfully. The tangible consequence in that trial -- a possible $1.6 million fine -- is relatively minor, but the possible reputational cost to Trump is harder to quantify.

5. Where do the civil cases stand?

• The New York attorney general’s civil suit against Trump and three of his children for allegedly inflating the value of his real estate company’s assets is perhaps the biggest threat to the former president’s wealth, as well as his image as a successful businessman. 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.

• Trump in November was sued for battery by New York advice columnist E. Jean Carroll, who claims that Trump raped her in a department store dressing room in the 1990s. The suit was filed under New York’s recently enacted Adult Survivors Act, which lifted the statute of limitations for one year on civil claims for sexual offenses. Trump was already facing a potential trial next year in a defamation suit brought by Carroll over his comments, when she first made her accusation in 2019, that Carroll was “not his type” and that she made up the claim to boost sales of her book. Trump says he’s shielded from liability in that suit because he was a government employee undertaking an official act when he denied Carroll’s allegation. In her battery lawsuit, Carroll included a new allegation of defamation against Trump, based on a social media post he wrote after leaving office.

• 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. Through her lawyer, Mary Trump said she would appeal. A trial in that case likely would dredge up decades of family drama tied around alleged rampant financial shenanigans.

• A group of Michigan voters sued Trump and his re-election 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.

--With assistance from Mark Niquette, Erik Larson and Chris Strohm.

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