MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images
- Former President Donald Trump has been indicted in four separate criminal cases since leaving office.
- All the cases loom as he runs for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
- Some are more threatening than others. Here’s our ranking.
Donald Trump made history in March as the first former president to be indicted. This week, he made history again as the first former president to be charged in four separate criminal cases.
The latest indictment, brought by Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis, represents the culmination of the last known active criminal investigation into Trump. Georgia prosecutors alleged that Trump and 18 co-defendants formed a criminal organization to conspire to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
Trump’s four cases are looming over him as he runs in the 2024 presidential election, where he’s far and away the frontrunner for the presidential nomination. His criminal trials — not to mention civil trials — and court appearances are set to largely run concurrently with the presidential race.
But while all the cases will keep him busy — and give him opportunities for fundraising — they don’t all pose the same level of threat. For some charges, he’s unlikely to see jail time if he’s convicted. Others could be much more dangerous for him if they get to a jury trial. Trump has denied all the criminal charges against him.
Here are all four cases, ranked from least to most threatening.
New York hush-money case
Stormy Daniels and Donald Trump.
Ethan Miller/Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg was the first to bring criminal charges against Trump. In March, he alleged Trump broke laws related to falsifying business records 34 different times. The alleged crimes occurred before he was elected president, as part of a scheme with Michael Cohen to pay porn star Stormy Daniels and keep her quiet ahead of the 2016 election about an affair she says she had with him.
Legal experts say the case, which comes after a yearslong investigation into Trump’s taxes and financial dealings, is strong but underwhelming.
Trump may take a page from John Edwards’ playbook and argue that the falsified documents were meant to hide the affair allegations from his wife Melania rather than deceive the American public, though legal experts say that approach could backfire.
But even if Trump is convicted of all counts, it’s unlikely that he will see any time behind bars for falsifying documents in connection to his $130,000 hush-money payment to Daniels.
Jack Smith’s Capitol riot case
In this January 6, 2021, file photo rioters supporting President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol in Washington, DC.
Earlier in August, the special counsel Jack Smith brought charges against Trump alleging he broke criminal laws by conspiring to obstruct Congress and rob Americans of their rightful votes through his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.
Trump’s attorneys have argued that his pressuring of then-Vice President Mike Pence to not certify Joe Biden’s electoral victory was perfectly legal. Other elements of the alleged conspiracy — like plots to send fake electors to Congress — were part of the political process and should not be tried in court, they have argued.
The case was assigned to US District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who has been unforgiving in handing out sentences to convicted participants of the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot in Washington DC.
While the charges are serious, Smith and Trump are in legally untested waters. It remains to be seen whether Chutkan or an appeals court might consider some of Trump’s activity described in the indictment as protected by the First Amendment.
If Trump were convicted in this case, he would be eligible for a presidential pardon since it’s a federal case. If he’s elected in 2024, he may try to pardon himself, or another Republican president may pardon him in the future.
Classified documents case
Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Smith’s office indicted Trump on 37 counts in June connected to his hoarding of government documents at Mar-a-Lago after leaving office. They include violations of the Espionage Act, conspiracy to obstruct justice, lying to law enforcement, and breaking three laws related to withholding and concealing government records.
The upside for the former president is that the judge presiding over this case, US District Judge Aileen Cannon, is a Trump nominee and has ruled in his favor in the past — often to the bafflement of legal experts. And like the DOJ’s January 6 case, the classified documents case is also a federal one, meaning Trump is eligible for a presidential pardon if he’s convicted following a trial.
But there’s a significant downside.
For one, this is a much more straightforward case for Smith’s office than the January 6 case because there’s more precedent for the alleged mishandling of classified information.
Prosecutors also went to great lengths to highlight Trump’s efforts to keep government records even after the National Archives and the Justice Department had asked for them back, as well as his and his associates’ attempts to obstruct the department’s investigation into the former president’s handling of national defense information.
They also highlighted in the indictment one conversation in which Trump appeared to acknowledge knowing that he was not supposed to share confidential or classified information with those who didn’t have the appropriate security clearance.
“This is secret information,” Trump said while waving classified documents in front of two visitors — a writer and a publisher — at his Bedminster golf club in January 2021. “Look, look at this.”
He and an aide discussed what they could do with the papers, and the aide said that “we’ll have to try to —”
“Declassify it,” Trump said, cutting the aide off. “See, as president, I could’ve declassified it. Now I can’t, you know, but this is still a secret.”
Prosecutors also tacked on three new charges against Trump in a superseding indictment filed late last month, accusing him of working with his associates to erase security camera footage to prevent investigators from viewing it, and willfully retaining national defense information.
Georgia’s RICO case
Donald Trump and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis.
REUTERS/Alan Freed; AP Photo/Ben Gray
The new indictment from Fulton County DA Fani Willis’ office is Trump’s greatest legal threat yet.
The most significant charge against the former president — RICO — carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
Because the case is so complicated and includes 19 defendants, it’s very likely that it will be the last case among the four to go to trial.
And if Trump is convicted, a judge can take his entire judicial history into account during sentencing, according to Ronald Carlson, a professor at the University of Georgia School of Law.
Moreover, Georgia is one of the few states where the governor doesn’t have any pardon power. Trump would have to apply for a pardon to an independent board. And he wouldn’t be allowed to do that until he’s already served five years in prison, Carlson said.
“The governor can’t pardon here. It’s the Board of Pardons and Paroles that has to grant that,” Carlson said. “And here’s the kicker: President Trump could only apply for a pardon if he were to be convicted only after he served five years in a Georgia penitentiary.”