The Cases Against Trump: A Guide

Not long ago, the idea that a former president—or major-party presidential nominee—would face serious legal jeopardy was nearly unthinkable. Today, merely keeping track of the many cases against Donald Trump requires a law degree, a great deal of attention, or both.

In all, Trump faces 91 felony counts across two state courts and two different federal districts, any of which could potentially produce a prison sentence. He’s also dealing with a civil suit in New York that could force drastic changes to his business empire, including closing down its operations in his home state. Meanwhile, he is the leading Republican candidate in the race to become the next president—though lawsuits in several states seek to have him disqualified from the presidency. If the criminal and civil cases unfold with any reasonable timeliness, he could be in the heat of the campaign trail at the same time that his legal fate is being decided.

[David A. Graham: The end of Trump Inc.]

Here’s a summary of the major legal cases against Trump, including key dates, an assessment of the gravity of the charges, and expectations about how they could turn out. This guide will be updated regularly as the cases proceed.

New York State: Fraud

In the fall of 2022, New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a civil suit against Trump, his adult sons, and his former aide Allen Weisselberg, alleging a years-long scheme in which Trump fraudulently reported the value of properties in order to either lower his tax bill or improve the terms of his loans, all with an eye toward inflating his net worth.

A judge ruled against Trump and his co-defendants in late September, concluding that many of the defendants’ claims were “clearly” fraudulent—so clearly that he didn’t need a trial to hear them. (He also sanctioned Trump’s lawyers for making repeated frivolous arguments.) A trial to determine the amount of damages Trump must pay is ongoing in Manhattan, and could stretch for weeks or even months. Justice Arthur Engoron, the presiding judge, has already fined Trump a combined $15,000 for violating a gag order in the case.

How grave is the allegation?
Fraud is fraud, and in this case, the sum of the fraud stretched into the millions—but compared with some of the other legal matters in which Trump is embroiled, this is pretty pedestrian. The case is civil rather than criminal, and though it could end with Trump’s famed company barred from business in New York, the loss of several key properties, and millions of dollars in fines, the stakes are lower, both for Trump and for the nation, than in the other cases against him.

How plausible is a guilty verdict?
Engoron has already ruled that Trump committed fraud. The outstanding questions are what damages he might have to pay and what exactly Engoron’s ruling means for Trump’s business and properties in New York.

Manhattan: Defamation and Sexual Assault

Although these other cases are all brought by government entities, Trump is also involved in an ongoing defamation case with the writer E. Jean Carroll, who said that Trump sexually assaulted her in a department-store dressing room in the 1990s. When he denied it, she sued him for defamation and later added a battery claim.

In May 2023, a jury concluded that Trump had sexually assaulted and defamed Carroll, and awarded her $5 million. A second defamation claim remains under consideration.

How grave is the allegation?
Although this case doesn’t directly connect to the same fundamental issues of rule of law and democratic governance that some of the criminal cases do, it is a serious matter, and a judge’s blunt statement that Trump raped Carroll has been underappreciated.

How plausible is a guilty verdict?
Trump has already been found liable for defamation and sexual assault, and a further finding of defamation is possible and perhaps likely.

Manhattan: Hush Money

In March 2023, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg became the first prosecutor to bring felony charges against Trump, alleging that the former president falsified business records as part of a scheme to pay hush money to women who said they had had sexual relationships with Trump.

The case is set to go to trial on March 25, 2024. In September, the judge overseeing the case signaled that he is open to changing that date, given the various other court cases that Trump is juggling, but he also said he didn’t think it was worth discussing until February.

How grave is the allegation?
Falsifying records is a crime, and crime is bad. But many people have analogized this case to Al Capone’s conviction on tax evasion: It’s not that he didn’t deserve it, but it wasn’t really why he was an infamous villain. That this case alleges behavior that didn’t directly attack elections or put national secrets at risk makes it feel more minor—in part because other cases have set a grossly high standard for what constitutes gravity.

How plausible is a guilty verdict?
Bragg’s case faces hurdles including arguments over the statute of limitations, a questionable key witness in the former Trump fixer Michael Cohen, and some fresh legal theories. In short, the Manhattan case seems like perhaps the least significant and most tenuous criminal case. Some Trump critics were dismayed that Bragg was the first to bring criminal charges against the former president.

Department of Justice: Mar-a-Lago Documents

Jack Smith, a special counsel in the U.S. Justice Department, has charged Trump with 37 felonies in connection with his removal of documents from the White House when he left office. The charges include willful retention of national-security information, obstruction of justice, withholding of documents, and false statements. Trump took boxes of documents to properties where they were stored haphazardly, but the indictment centers on his refusal to give them back to the government despite repeated requests.

[David A. Graham: This indictment is different]

Smith filed charges in June 2023. Judge Aileen Cannon has set a trial date of May 20, 2024. Smith faces a de facto deadline of January 20, 2025, at which point Trump or any Republican president would likely shut down a case.

How grave is the allegation?
These are, I have written, the stupidest crimes imaginable, but they are nevertheless quite serious. Protecting the nation’s secrets is one of the greatest responsibilities of any public official with classified clearance, and not only did Trump put these documents at risk, but he also (allegedly) refused to comply with a subpoena, tried to hide them, and lied to the government through his attorneys.

How plausible is a guilty verdict?
This may be the most open-and-shut case, and the facts and legal theory here are pretty straightforward. But Smith is believed to have drawn a short straw when he was randomly assigned Cannon, a Trump appointee who has sometimes ruled favorably for Trump on procedural matters.

Fulton County: Election Subversion

In Fulton County, Georgia, which includes most of Atlanta, District Attorney Fani Willis brought a huge racketeering case against Trump and 18 others, alleging a conspiracy that spread across weeks and states with the aim of stealing the 2020 election.

Willis obtained the indictment in August. The number of defendants makes the case unwieldy and difficult to track. In late September, one defendant who breached election equipment struck a plea deal. Three more, Kenneth Chesebro, Sidney Powell, and Jenna Ellis, pleaded guilty in late October. No date has been set for the other defendants’ trial, but it likely won’t come until 2024.

How grave is the allegation?
More than any other case, this one attempts to reckon with the full breadth of the assault on democracy following the 2020 election.

How plausible is a guilty verdict?
Expert views differ. This is a huge case for a local prosecutor, even in a county as large as Fulton, to bring. The racketeering law allows Willis to sweep in a great deal of material, and she has some strong evidence—such as a call in which Trump asked Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” some 11,000 votes. Three major plea deals from co-defendants may also ease Willis’s path. But getting a jury to convict Trump will still be a challenge.

Department of Justice: Election Subversion

Special Counsel Smith has also charged Trump with four federal felonies in connection with his attempt to remain in power after losing the 2020 election. This case is in court in Washington, D.C.

A grand jury indicted Trump on August 1. A trial is scheduled for March 4, 2024. As with the other DOJ case, Smith will need to move quickly, before Trump or any other Republican president could shut down a case upon taking office in January 2025. But even before the trial begins, heated legal skirmishes are under way: In October, following verbal attacks by Trump on witnesses and Smith’s wife, Judge Tanya Chutkan issued an order limiting what Trump can say about the case.

[David A. Graham: Trump attempted a brazen, dead serious attack on American democracy]

How grave is the allegation?
This case rivals the Fulton County one in importance. It is narrower, focusing just on Trump and a few key elements of the paperwork coup, but the symbolic weight of the U.S. Justice Department prosecuting the attempt to subvert the American election system is heavy.

How plausible is a guilty verdict?
It’s very hard to say. Smith avoided some of the more unconventional potential charges, including aiding insurrection, and everyone watched much of the alleged crime unfold in public in real time, but no precedent exists for a case like this, with a defendant like this.

Additionally …

In about 20 states, cases are pending over whether Trump should be thrown off the 2024 ballot under a novel legal theory about the Fourteenth Amendment. Proponents, including J. Michael Luttig and Laurence H. Tribe in The Atlantic, argue that the former president is ineligible to serve again under a clause that disqualifies anyone who took an oath defending the Constitution and then subsequently participated in a rebellion or an insurrection. They say that Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 election and his incitement of the January 6 riot meet the criteria.

The three most active cases right now are the following:

  1. Colorado: A state-court trial in Denver began on October 30 in a suit filed by Colorado residents and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, to kick Trump off the Centennial State ballot.

  2. Michigan: A similar case tried to force Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to disqualify Trump, she stated that she did not have the authority to decide whether Trump was eligible, and that only a court could decide. But on October 30, Trump’s campaign asked for a court ruling affirming that Benson has no such power.

  3. Minnesota: Yet another similar case, filed by residents and the liberal group Free Speech for People, sought to keep Trump off the ballot in Minnesota. The state supreme court dismissed the suit on November 8, ruling that Trump could remain on the GOP primary ballot, but leaving open the possibility of a separate suit to challenge his status on the general-election ballot.

Cases are in various stages of progress, and the Colorado and Minnesota trials should wrap soon. But time is tight in all of these matters: Ballots for primary elections in early states must be printed soon in order to reach overseas and military voters. Any decisions are expected to be appealed, perhaps as high as the U.S. Supreme Court.

How grave is the allegation?
In a sense, the claim made here is even graver than the criminal election-subversion cases filed against Trump by the U.S. Department of Justice and in Fulton County, Georgia, because neither of those cases alleges insurrection or rebellion. But the stakes are also much different—rather than criminal conviction, they concern the ability to serve as president.

How plausible is a disqualification?
No one knows. The clause has seldom been used, and not for some time, and never for a plausible presidential candidate. Courts might hesitate to disqualify Trump under a somewhat novel theory and without either a criminal conviction or an impeachment conviction, though proponents insist that neither is required. Given different judges and state procedures, one plausible outcome is that Trump might be tossed off the ballot in some states but not in others—which could matter a lot or not at all to the outcome of the 2024 election, depending on the state’s partisan lean. More likely, however, a Supreme Court ruling would resolve the issue to avoid a patchwork.

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