Former President Donald Trump has now been indicted four times, in four separate jurisdictions, for an array of crimes arising out of how he became president, how he attempted to hold on to the office after losing the 2020 election, and how he refused to give up the trappings of office after President Joe Biden was inaugurated.
The newest indictment was filed on August 14 in Georgia. It alleges that Trump led a massive conspiracy to overturn Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. Notably, this Georgia indictment also includes charges against 18 of Trump’s alleged co-conspirators. They include high-profile figures like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former US Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Clark, as well as some surprising figures like a former publicist for the artist Ye.
These Georgia charges follow a similar federal indictment: On August 1, prosecutors on special counsel Jack Smith’s team charged Trump in the District of Columbia with four counts related to his attempt to stay in power after the 2020 election. The indictment argues that Trump’s lies about massive voter fraud and pressure on various elected officials to change the results, among other actions, amounted to a criminal conspiracy. His trial date there has not yet been set.
In June, Smith’s team had separately charged Trump in Florida over his handling of classified documents. That indictment claimed that Trump flouted a subpoena requiring him to surrender classified national security documents he kept in unsecured locations at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida residence. And at the end of July, Smith’s team filed a “superseding indictment” adding more charges, accusing Trump of trying to have security camera footage deleted rather than providing it to investigators. This trial is scheduled for May 20, 2024.
And before any of that, in April, Trump was charged with 34 separate counts by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg in connection with the most absurd crime imaginable: allegedly falsifying business records to cover up the hush money payments he paid to an adult film actress, which was itself intended to cover up an extramarital affair Trump allegedly had shortly after his third wife gave birth to their son Barron. This trial is scheduled for March 25, 2024.
We do not yet know if any of these prosecutions will end in Trump being convicted of a crime or sent to prison.
The classified documents case is arguably the most open-and-shut, but it’s before a judge who appears to be highly sympathetic to Trump, and in a district where the jury pool may contain many of his staunch supporters. In the other pending trials, Trump will likely file challenges to prosecutors’ legal theories, and higher courts may weigh in.
And there’s the added wrinkle that, if Trump wins the presidency again in 2024, he could take over the Justice Department and make the federal cases against him go away.
When all these investigations are complete and all the potential charges against Trump are resolved, in other words, it is still possible that he will never be convicted of a crime.
Nevertheless, Trump is already the first former US president ever to be indicted. And, by the time this entire saga is over, he could potentially be convicted of multiple crimes in four different criminal proceedings.
The federal indictment over Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 election
The Justice Department’s larger investigation into the January 6 attacks has been going on since they happened, focusing first on the people who stormed the Capitol. But initially, there wasn’t a consensus in the political world about whether Trump had committed crimes with his web of lies about the election. So an investigation into him does not appear to have begun immediately.
We now know that a team of prosecutors began more intensely scrutinizing Trump and his associates in the fall of 2021. Toward the end of that year, this team was “given the green light by the Justice Department to take a case all the way up to Trump, if the evidence leads them there,” CNN later reported.
In January 2022, the Washington Post reported that “so far the department does not appear to be directly investigating” Trump. But just a week and a half after that article, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco confirmed an investigation into one aspect of Trump’s scheme: fake electors. By May, the investigation had subpoenaed many close Trump aides for documents and was asking specifically for info about lawyers who had tried to help him overturn the election.
After Trump’s November 2022 announcement that he was running for president again, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel, Jack Smith, to take over this investigation, as well as the separate classified documents probe. In the ensuing months, a growing number of Trump aides testified before Washington, DC, grand juries. Legal challenges unfolded behind the scenes as Trump filed suits to try and block testimony of ex-officials like former White House counsel Pat Cipollone and Vice President Mike Pence, but these efforts largely failed.
At long last, the investigation culminated on August 1 with Trump’s indictment on four counts: conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, obstruction of an official proceeding, and conspiracy to disenfranchise voters.
Though the indictment acknowledges that Trump had the right to speak freely about the election and even to lie about it, and that he had the right to challenge the results “through lawful and appropriate means,” Smith argues that his conduct went far beyond that and amounted to criminal conspiracy.
He singled out five main aspects of this conspiracy, all of which, he said, relied on Trump’s false claims of massive voter fraud:
- Pressure on state legislators and officials to change results: Smith argues Trump used “knowingly false claims of election fraud” to try and get officials in swing states like Arizona and Georgia to overturn Biden’s wins and give him those states’ electoral votes instead. This, per Smith, was a “pretext,” and Trump was trying to “disenfranchise millions of voters.”
- “Fraudulent electors”: With Biden’s electors set to be approved in key swing states, Trump and his allies worked to assemble slates of his own electors to be given to Congress. The plan was that, when Congress assembled to count the electoral votes on January 6, they (or Vice President Mike Pence) would throw out Biden’s electors and count Trump’s instead.
- Justice Department intervention: Trump, Smith alleges, tried to use the DOJ “to conduct sham election crime investigations” and to falsely claim that investigators had discovered massive voter fraud.
- Pressure on Vice President Pence: Though the vice president’s role in counting the electoral votes was long understood to be ceremonial, Trump and his allies argued that Pence actually had the authority to change the outcome and pressured him to do so.
- Causing and exploiting the chaos of January 6: Smith argues that Trump deceived his supporters with false claims and “directed them to the Capitol to obstruct the certification proceeding.” Then, when rioters broke into the Capitol building, Trump and his allies “exploited the disruption” by urging members of Congress to try and delay the certification further.
The indictment also mentions, but does not name, six specific co-conspirators. It provides enough details to match their descriptions to previously reported information, which makes clear five of the conspirators are Rudy Giuliani, John Eastman, Sidney Powell, Kenneth Chesebro, and Jeffrey Clark. (The first four are Trump attorneys, and Clark was a Justice Department official in his administration.) They have not yet been charged.
This is all fairly novel territory, and it’s hard to point to a case quite like it. The heart of Trump’s defense will likely be an argument that he truly believed the election was stolen and that his conduct was politicking and political speech, not a criminal conspiracy.
But the former president got some bad news when Judge Tanya Chutkan, who has been known for imposing harsh sentences on January 6 rioters, was assigned to his case. A trial date has not yet been set.
The classified documents investigation
In contrast to Trump’s sprawling effort to stay in power, the parallel case Smith has brought against him in Florida is simpler: The gist is that he took classified documents and he didn’t give them back.
Back in January 2021, when Trump was leaving office, he had many government documents sent to Mar-a-Lago. The National Archives — the agency in charge of keeping government records — soon noticed many were missing and asked for them back. A lengthy back-and-forth ensued.
Trump stonewalled and insisted the documents were rightfully his, but eventually, in January 2022, he agreed to return some of them. Archives officials then discovered many of the documents he’d had were classified, and they also suspected he was still holding on to some others. So they referred the matter to the Justice Department.
The DOJ sent Trump a subpoena demanding he return more. Trump’s team did return some more, and told the government in June 2022 that they’d searched the property and there was no more classified material remaining. But investigators believed that to be false and ordered an August 2022 search of Mar-a-Lago, which found more than 100 more classified documents. The search revealed the investigation to the world and made clear Trump was in serious legal jeopardy. Special counsel Smith took over the case in November 2022.
In June 2023, Smith’s team indicted Trump on 37 counts, accusing him of unauthorized retention of defense information, conspiring to obstruct justice, withholding government documents, scheming to conceal information from a grand jury, and causing false statements to be made to the government. They also charged Trump’s personal aide Walt Nauta on six counts, accusing him of making false statements to the FBI and conspiring with Trump to conceal information.
The indictment alleged that, while out of office, Trump deliberately kept many documents involving military, nuclear, and intelligence secrets. It made the case that he knew full well some of that information was classified. It contained a wealth of evidentiary detail attesting to Trump’s intense interest in those documents and his deep involvement in discussions about what to return to the government. And it recounted how Trump allegedly schemed to hide certain documents from his own attorneys and from the government.
Then, in late July, Smith filed a superseding indictment accusing Trump and the Mar-a-Lago property manager, Carlos De Oliveira, with attempting to delete surveillance footage of the property that should have been provided to investigators.
The documents case is generally believed to be strong. Yet Trump may have had a stroke of good fortune when Judge Aileen Cannon was assigned to the case. Appointed by Trump himself, Cannon had previously overseen the former president’s lawsuit related to the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search, and she departed from legal precedent in surprising ways to side with Trump’s team. Judges in higher courts eventually overturned her rulings, but there are many ways in which a trial judge could put her thumb on the scale in Trump’s favor.
Cannon has scheduled a trial date for May 20, 2024.
The New York indictment of Donald Trump
Before charging Trump in April, the Manhattan DA had already been investigating financial fraud at the Trump Organization for several years. Bragg’s office has already secured a couple of convictions against Trump’s primary business and one of his close business associates.
Last August, former Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg pleaded guilty to allegations that he did not pay taxes on $1.7 million in compensation — including an apartment, two cars, and private school tuition for family members. He also agreed to testify against the Trump Organization, and this allowed prosecutors to convict the Trump Organization of 17 counts of tax fraud and related financial crimes arising from the payments to Weisselberg.
But Weisselberg did not agree to testify against Trump, and the actual charges against the former president arise out of a separate set of shady transactions: Trump’s alleged $130,000 in payments to porn actress Stormy Daniels, which were made to cover up an alleged sexual encounter between Trump and Daniels in 2006 (Trump denies that he had sex with Daniels).
Notably, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance crimes arising out of these hush money payments to Daniels in 2018.
In April, Bragg’s office unsealed an indictment that charges Trump with 34 separate counts of falsifying business records in the first degree, a felony. A separate document laying out the factual basis for Bragg’s allegations against Trump points to a complicated web of arrangements between Trump, Cohen (who is identified as “Lawyer A”), and David Pecker, the CEO of American Media, the company that publishes the National Enquirer.
New York law typically does not make it a crime to pay a former sexual partner to remain silent about an affair. But it is a crime to falsify business records in New York “with the intent to defraud.”
So, if Bragg can prove that Trump mischaracterized his payments to Daniels in the Trump Organization’s own documents in order to cover up those payments, that could potentially allow Trump to be convicted.
There is, however, a catch. Ordinarily, falsifying business records is only a misdemeanor under New York law — meaning that it is a minor crime that is only punishable by up to a year in prison. That said, it is possible to charge a defendant accused of falsifying business records with a felony. To charge Trump with a felony, however, Bragg also has to prove that Trump falsified business records with the “intent to commit another crime or to aid or conceal the commission thereof.”
In the statement of facts document, Bragg tries to link Trump to the federal campaign finance crime Cohen pleaded guilty to in 2018 and a broader “scheme” with Pecker to suppress damaging stories in the lead-up to the election. But it is far from clear that New York state prosecutors may charge Trump with a felony because he tried to cover up a federal, as opposed to a state, crime.
As Mark Pomerantz, a former prosecutor in the Manhattan DA’s office, wrote in a recent book, the felony statute is “ambiguous” — though it refers to “another crime,” it does not say whether this crime may be a federal criminal act or only an act that violates New York’s criminal law. Worse, Pomerantz writes, “no appellate court in New York has ever upheld (or rejected) this interpretation of the law.”
That means that, unless Bragg eventually links Trump to some other state crime, there is a great deal of uncertainty about whether a felony conviction against Trump can stand.
There’s one more twist here. The statute of limitations for the felony version of the false records crime is five years, while the statute of limitations for the misdemeanor version is only two years. Trump’s final payment to Cohen occurred in December 2017, which was more than five years ago.
That said, New York law sometimes allows the clock to be stopped on these statutes of limitations when the defendant was out of the state, and Trump spent four years living in the White House before relocating to Florida.
In any case, there is still a good chunk of time before these issues will be sorted out: this trial will happen in March 2024, the presiding judge said recently. The start date, for what it’s worth, is three weeks after Super Tuesday.
The Georgia investigation into Trump’s attempts to overthrow the 2020 election
In early January 2022, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’s office asked a Georgia court to convene a special grand jury “for the purpose of investigating the facts and circumstances relating directly or indirectly to possible attempts to disrupt the lawful administration of the 2020 elections in the State of Georgia.”
This investigation includes both Trump’s “find 11,780 votes” phone call and the Trump campaign’s attempt to create a slate of fake members of the Electoral College who would fraudulently tell Congress that the state’s electoral votes were cast for Trump.
The special grand jury, whose investigation is now complete, heard testimony from several very high-profile Trump allies, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and US Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
Many of the facts alleged in the Georgia indictment against Trump and his 18 alleged co-conspirators closely track the allegations in the federal case being heard by Judge Chutkan. The indictment accuses Trump of leading a criminal enterprise that lied to state officials and federal courts, pressured officials in many states to tamper with the results of the 2020 election, and created a slate of fake electors to cast fake Electoral College votes for Trump.
In total, the Georgia indictment includes 41 different criminal charges against Trump and his co-conspirators — ranging from perjury to forgery to “solicitation of violation of oath by a public officer” — although Trump is only personally implicated in 13 of these charges.
Notably, the indictment also charges Trump with violating Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, a statute that is often used to charge members of the mafia and other criminal enterprises. RICO potentially allows members of a broader criminal enterprise to be convicted, even if they did not personally participate in every criminal act committed by that enterprise, so long as they are implicated in at least one crime committed by the broader criminal organization.
We do not yet know when the Georgia trial will take place, and it might be a while. Any case involving a sprawling alleged conspiracy, dozens of criminal allegations, and 19 alleged co-conspirators will be quite complicated. And the defendants’ lawyers will need an adequate amount of time to prepare a defense.
Trump is also expected to try to move this case from Georgia state court to federal court, under a federal statute that permits state prosecutions against many federal officials to be heard by a federal judge. That means that this case may ultimately wind up being heard by a judge, like Cannon, who was appointed by Trump himself.
Update, August 15, 2 pm ET: This story, originally published April 4, has been updated several times, most recently to include information about the Georgia indictment.