WASHINGTON — The latest indictment against former president Donald Trump, handed down late Monday by a Georgia grand jury, is perhaps the most sweeping addition yet to the phalanx of legal challenges he faces. The four different cases will shape the 2024 presidential campaign, Trump’s personal future, and quite possibly each other, as judges set trial dates for a defendant who is in the midst of a presidential campaign.
Here’s a primer on the warren of cases and where things might proceed from here.
What has Trump been charged with in Georgia?
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis on Monday presented a 41-count indictment against Trump and 18 codefendants, including lawyers such as Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, and former Georgia GOP chair David Shafer, alleging they participated in a sprawling scheme to overturn the results of the presidential election in Georgia. Trump faces 13 of those counts, including solicitation of a violation of oath by a public officer, for his request to the GOP secretary of state to “find” him more votes, several conspiracy charges, and a racketeering charge.
“She’s framed . . . the unlawful enterprise as a truly national one, which was fixated on Georgia and was aimed at harming Georgians’ rights and violation of Georgia law,” said Anthony Michael Kreis, an assistant professor of law at Georgia State University.
What are all the criminal cases Trump is facing?
The one most similar to Georgia is the four counts in a federal case related to his efforts to hold onto power after he lost the 2020 election. The special counsel in that case has also brought more than three dozen counts accusing him of taking classified documents after leaving office and refusing to return them. Lastly, in New York state, he faces 34 counts of falsifying business records centered on hush money payments to a porn star.
Combined, Trump has been indicted on 91 criminal charges.
How different are the state and federal cases for trying to overturn the election?
Both home in on the same period of time: the weeks between the 2020 election and Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump and his allies were calling local Republican officials and assembling fake slates of electors in an effort to gum up the certification of Joe Biden’s victory. But, crucially, the federal case, brought by Special Counsel Jack Smith, focuses on the actions of Trump alone, while Willis’s case is a much broader action involving the people around him.
“Federal prosecutors appear to have decided that [Trump] was the most means to prosecute this case, to ensure as best they can that that case will go to trial as quickly as possible and before the election,” said Bob Mintz, a former federal prosecutor.
That makes for a more straightforward case, although it will require Smith to provide solid evidence about Trump’s intent. Willis, on the other hand, uses a racketeering charge to allege that 19 people worked together to try to overturn the election. The sheer scale of the case will make for a deeply complicated proceeding, but it also provides her with opportunities to flip codefendants in an effort to advance her case — particularly because some charges carry sentences of up to 20 years in prison.
“The people who are codefendants who may not have the resources or desire to put themselves in further legal jeopardy for Donald Trump have an incentive to perhaps work against him,” Kreis said.
Why racketeering charges?
Georgia passed a state version of the racketeering law a decade after the federal government adopted it in 1970 primarily to target organized crime.
“Its primary target was the Mafia dons, the godfather-type figures, who were basically not really involved very much in criminal activity, but they were orchestrating,” said Jeffrey E. Grell, a Minneapolis-based lawyer who has developed an expertise in racketeering, also known as RICO, cases.
The Georgia RICO law is even broader than the federal one, which gives prosecutors even more latitude to pursue conspiracy charges.
RICO cases can be spectacularly complex. Willis has said she wants to try all 19 codefendants together.
“For a prosecutor, there’s advantages to doing that: guilt by association,” Grell said. But the practical aspects are challenging. Each defendant will likely try to delay the case or seek an individual trial. The instructions to the jury and the verdict form will be very complicated. Even just finding a big enough courtroom could be difficult.
When will Trump go to trial?
Two of the cases against Trump already have dates, although they could be further delayed. The New York case is set for March 25. The judge in the classified documents case has set a trial date for May 20.
Prosecutors in the federal election case have asked for a trial to begin on Jan. 2, 2024, shortly before the Iowa caucuses. Leslie Caldwell, former assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, called that timeline “extremely realistic.”
“Even though there’s a lot in that indictment, at the end of the day, it’s not super complicated an indictment by the standards of white collar cases. It’s not super document heavy,” Caldwell said.
The Georgia case is expected to proceed much more slowly, she said. “The Georgia case has a lot of defendants, each of whom will have his or her own lawyer who will be thinking about motions and arguments that they want to make on behalf of their individual clients,” Caldwell said.
How can one defendant keep up with four different criminal cases and what logistical challenges could arise?
There is no set of rules to govern the order of trials for defendants facing multiple cases, Mintz said, which means the four different judges will have to work around each other.
Trump’s defense team, he said, is likely to raise the issue of scheduling and logistics frequently.
“There are legitimate concerns that the defense will raise about . . . any defendant’s ability to prepare for multiple trials in different jurisdictions involving different issues, different witnesses, grasp different defenses,” Mintz said.
Trump has also complained publicly that the trials will keep him off the campaign trail. But at least one judge has made it clear that, for her, the trial takes precedence.
“The fact that he is running a political campaign currently has to yield to the administration of justice,” said US District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, who is overseeing the federal election subversion trial.
Can Trump go to prison if convicted, and how would that affect his campaign?
Yes, Caldwell said. The charges carry a maximum of hundreds of years in prison, combined. He would, however, be able to campaign from prison, she said.
What happens to the charges if Trump gets elected?
If Trump were to be reelected, he could potentially pardon himself, or appoint an attorney general who could drop any ongoing federal prosecutions. That’s put more attention on the Georgia charges, since the president cannot issue pardons for state criminal convictions. Moreover, Georgia law makes it difficult to obtain pardons.
“In the event that former president Trump were to be reelected, the state charges are clearly the most enduring,” Mintz said. “Even the president of the United States cannot direct the state to drop charges . . . so that case, will proceed to trial one way or the other.”
However, there is a chance the Georgia case could be moved to federal court, Kreis said. That’s something Trump’s defense lawyers will surely try to do, although he would have to prove he was acting in his capacity as a federal official, rather than a private citizen with a self-serving interest.
“Federal law basically says that people who are indicted for things related to their official acts and official duties as federal officers . . . should have an opportunity to be tried in federal court, under the theory that it’s a more neutral venue than a state court,” Kreis said.