Electoralism/Democratism

How much legal trouble is Donald Trump in?

The Signal

How much legal trouble is Donald Trump in? Kimberly Wehle on the criminal and civil investigations trailing the former U.S. president.
No longer, for the moment, dominating headlines in the U.S. or around the world, Donald Trump faces increasing legal peril. It’s entirely possible that he will become the first American president ever charged with committing felonies in or out of office—and the cases against him could, in turn, upend the U.S. Republican Party and 2024 presidential election. Public prosecutors in at least four jurisdictions are conducting criminal and civil investigations of Trump, while the U.S. Congress’ January 6 Committee will begin hearings, in April or May, on the attack at the U.S. Capitol and Trump’s role in it. How serious are these legal threats against him?
Kimberly Wehle is a professor of law at the University of Baltimore, a former assistant U.S. attorney, and the author of How to Think Like a Lawyer—and Why. The biggest danger to Trump, Wehle says, is the criminal investigation in Georgia over his call to the state’s top election official, when the former president asked him to “find” enough votes to reverse Joe Biden’s victory there. As Wehle points out, that call was recorded, eliminating any doubt about what Trump said. The January 6 Committee also presents potentially grave legal jeopardy for him, given the caliber of the prosecutors leading the investigation, the fact that the hearings will be public, and the possibility that the committee will refer criminal charges to the Justice Department. Meanwhile, Wehle says, what’s happening with the long-running civil and criminal probes of Trump’s business dealings led by prosecutors in Manhattan and New York State remains murky, and their outcomes remain uncertain—but then, so is the potential damage to Trump they represent.
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Michael Bluhm: How do things look for Donald Trump right now?
Kimberly Wehle: It’s likely that there’s going to be some legal accountability. There are ongoing criminal investigations in Georgia, New York, and a suburb of New York. There’s also an ongoing criminal investigation in Manhattan, though it looks like the new district attorney there, Alvin Bragg, is pulling back. Then we have a civil case in the state of New York relating to Trump’s taxes and alleged misstatements to banks.
But the most overarching investigation is the January 6 Committee’s. They don’t have the authority to bring a criminal indictment, but Jamie Raskin—a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives who was a brilliant constitutional scholar before taking office—has said that the revelations will blow the lid off the House. I assume that means we will hear new information that didn’t have in the second impeachment trial, and the Justice Department will be hearing it, as well. I have a hunch that the Department is waiting to see the public reaction to the January 6 revelations before pursuing a case against Trump.
Bluhm: When do you expect decisions on charges?
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Wehle: Impossible to say. Frankly, I’m surprised that the grand-jury investigation into the infamous call in Georgia—where Trump got on the phone with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and asked him to find enough votes to swing the election there—is taking so long.
It’s rare that there’s an audiotape of the alleged wrongdoing. I hope we see charges in the next year, but the wheels of justice can move slowly when these cases are complicated. And we just don’t have any historical precedent for something like this involving a former president.
Bluhm: New York State Attorney General Letitia James is investigating the Trump Organization, and Trump himself, in the civil case you mention. A New York State judge recently ruled that he and his children have to give depositions under oath in the case. What’s going on with this case?
Wehle: In any legal action, there’s first a fact-gathering process. Based on the facts, there might be a civil complaint filed against a defendant. Tish James is still in the fact-gathering process. There’s been no lawsuit filed against Donald Trump. Even if there were a lawsuit filed against Donald Trump, it couldn’t produce anything other than back pay of taxes and perhaps what we call injunctive relief—directing him to act in a certain way in the future.
It’s perhaps more important for unearthing information that could bear on his criminal liability than as a bludgeon on the Trump Organization. This is a man who’s been sued hundreds of times. The difference now is, it’s not just going to go away through his normal tactics. Trump can’t buy off the attorney general.
He’s argued, over and over again, that the fact that he was president means that any investigation—civil or criminal—of him, his family, or his assets is off-limits; and he’s lost that argument, over and over again, in the courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.
More from Kimberly Wehle at The Signal:
The two top prosecutors [in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office]—highly experienced, reputable professionals who’ve been presenting evidence for a long time—recently resigned. Many people with experience in this kind of thing say the fact that these two resigned strongly suggests that they believe there’s a case against Trump, and they were ready to bring an indictment, but Alvin Bragg pulled the plug on it. The prosecutors can’t say publicly that they’re angry. But the fact that they bailed when the grand jury is about to expire suggests that Alvin Bragg said, I’m not moving forward on anything, regardless of the evidence.
Donald Trump, with others on the call, spoke with [Georgia Secretary of State] Brad Raffensperger after multiple audits of the election. Raffensperger is a Republican who took a lot of heat in prior elections for allegedly making it harder for Democrats to vote. Trump got on the phone with him and said, I just want to find 11,780 votes. [Trump lost Georgia by 11,779 votes.] Raffensperger’s response was, We don’t have them. We’ve already audited this. Fani Willis has talked to or wants to talk to the other people who were on the Trump side of that call and ask, What did Mr. Trump know before and after that? Did he know what he was doing? Here we have an audiotape of that can be authenticated in court. You’re not looking at someone’s secondhand version of the conversation.”
It’s hard to imagine Donald Trump’s base is going to be persuaded by anything negative that happens with him legally. He campaigned saying he could shoot someone, and they’d still vote for him. I think that’s true. What happens with the mainstream Republican Party is less certain. After January 6, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, What the president did was wrong. This is an assault on our democracy. McConnell said that, but then the vast majority of the Republican Party came right back in lockstep with Trump.”
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Meanwhile

What has Putin wrought for Russia by invading Ukraine? Anders Åslund on the shock of global isolation and the escalating risk of economic ruin.
How is Russia’s war on Ukraine affecting global politics? Tim Sayle on economics, ideology, and the specter of a new Cold War.
How is propaganda from Russia shaping the global context of the war in Ukraine? Mike Smeltzer on the Kremlin’s program for manipulating the media at home and abroad.
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