On both the criminal and the civil litigation fronts, former President Donald Trump faces an array of lawsuits and investigations, with more cases likely to follow. After the many legal setbacks dealt to him in February, March shows no signs of letting up. Just this week, the Jan. 6 House committee argued in a court filing that he and members of his campaign “engaged in a criminal conspiracy to defraud the United States.”
The multitude of actual and potential criminal investigations staring down at the former president — coupled with the bevy of civil lawsuits against entities he controls — reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from the original 1977 film “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.” It’s the one in which Leia, Han, Chewbacca and Luke jump down a garbage chute to evade the encroaching stormtroopers. Soon, the group members not only find a monster swimming around their feet, but they also realize that the walls of the trash compactor are literally closing in, threatening to crush them. In the end, disaster is only avoided when Luke’s droid, R2-D2, disables the crushing device at the very last moment.
February provided a constant stream of bad news for the former president on both the civil and the criminal fronts.
It’s a memorable couple of minutes of cinema showing how things can go from bad to worse to very, very bad — and one that reminds me of how Trump must be feeling right now amid cascading legal problems that are engulfing him, his family and his businesses across multiple jurisdictions. The prospects that his businesses could be hit with severe civil penalties and that he himself could even be indicted on criminal charges seem to be looming ever larger. With the walls appearing to close in on the former president, the real question is how he will respond and try to save his political career, save his businesses from going under and, most importantly, keep his freedom.
In a recent surprising turn of events, one source of hope for Trump might come from a most unlikely place: Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. According to a New York Times report, Bragg is said to be expressing doubts about his office’s ability to try a criminal case against Trump over allegations of manipulation of asset valuations.
But unless the other prosecutors across the country looking at civil cases against Trump-held organizations and potential criminal charges against Trump also suddenly begin to get weak knees, his companies could be facing devastating civil penalties and he could soon be facing one or multiple criminal indictments over his alleged behavior. And with regards to potential criminal exposure, we can all pretty much predict how the former president is likely to react to an indictment — by wearing it as a badge of honor. Instead of circling the wagons to focus on his defense, Trump will likely attempt to counter any perception that he’s down and out by doing the otherwise unthinkable for someone facing the prospect of doing time behind bars: he will run for president in 2024.
February provided a constant stream of bad news for the former president on both the civil and the criminal fronts. In D.C., U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta refused to toss out three civil lawsuits by Democratic House members and police officers seeking damages from Trump for physical and emotional injuries incurred in the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. These could levy a substantial financial blow to the former president. In a separate case, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine announced that a civil lawsuit against Trump’s inaugural committee, the Trump International Hotel and the Trump Organization that allege abuse of nonprofit funds to benefit the former president’s family would head to trial in September.
Anyone hoping that something as serious as an indictment would finally force the party of Ronald Reagan to sober up after years of drinking spiked Trump Kool-Aid will be sorely disappointed.
Also, in the nation’s capital, the National Archives said it had informed the Department of Justice that Trump had potentially violated the Presidential Records Act by taking boxes of official memos and records and stashing them away at his private Florida residence at Mar-a-Lago. Some of them were considered classified and, according to a Washington Post report, some were marked “top secret” — alleged offenses that could constitute criminal conduct.
And all that came just a month after Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis was granted a special grand jury to proceed with a criminal investigation focusing on Trump’s alleged election meddling in Georgia during the 2020 presidential election.
With Trump facing all of this, it’s easy to see why it’s now likely that he could be indicted on one or more of these charges. If that happens, would a flurry of indictments finally break wide open the cracks that have begun to develop within the GOP, leaving the party rudderless ahead of the 2022 midterms and into 2024? Or will the Republican National Committee continue to vow allegiance to a twice-impeached former president under indictment because he still maintains an unshakeable grip on the party’s base?
I don’t think we need a crystal ball to see how this plays out.
Progressives tend to fantasize about the day that Trump finally has to face the music for all his alleged crookedness, misdeeds and downright cruelty. Still, anyone hoping that something as serious as an indictment would finally force the party of Ronald Reagan to sober up after years of drinking spiked Trump Kool-Aid will be sorely disappointed.
Leaders within the GOP know that although an indictment of Trump might be likely, a conviction is not. The New York attorney general is deposing the Trumps in a civil probe that can levy financial penalties but not jail time, and the Manhattan DA’s parallel criminal investigation looks like it might already be over. The Jan. 6 committee in Congress has stated quite clearly that it has sufficient evidence to suggest that the former president might have engaged in criminal behavior in his attempt to mastermind a coup, but there is no indication that the Justice Department is even investigating the issue. It’s not unsurprising given Attorney General Merrick Garland’s predilection toward shying away from controversy and seemingly allergic reaction to all things political. The National Archives’ referral to the Justice Department is promising, but it’s unlikely Garland has the stomach to break with precedent and go after Trump on charges half of the country will see as nothing more than a clerical error.
There are no federal rules that disqualify candidates under indictment from seeking the highest office in the land, and any indictment of the former president will simply serve to further Trump’s claims of being the victim of a never-ending political witch hunt. In fact, by indicting Trump, the justice system will effectively be blowing wind into his sails, all but assuring that he will run again in 2024. Moreover, for a man whose business empire appears to be on the ropes, his ability to monetize an indictment will prove to be a much-needed fundraising bonanza.
If Trump is indicted and convicted before the 2024 election, unbelievably, he could still run for president from jail or prison; the Constitution places no limit on a presidential candidate’s carceral status or criminal record. And although at least three incarcerated third-party candidates have run for president before with no legal obstacles, we can only hope Republicans would finally draw the line at backing a convicted felon doing hard time.
Although the walls may be finally closing in on No. 45, if he is ultimately indicted or even if only his businesses are hit with severe financial penalties, he will use these setbacks to become stronger than ever inside the Republican Party, particularly vis-à-vis the party’s base. He will likely argue that these legal blows are nothing more than a continuation of the ongoing witch hunt against him and his family. For the third consecutive cycle, all signs point to Trump becoming the GOP’s nominee, and any further legal troubles will make the likelihood of him running again all the more probable.