Trump’s legal battles are at a critical moment with major implications for the 2024 election

NEWTON, IOWA - JANUARY 06: Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event on January 06, 2024 in Newton, Iowa. President Trump is campaigning across cities in Iowa in the lead up to the January 15 caucus for Iowa Republicans to select their party's nominee for the 2024 presidential race. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event on January 6, 2024, in Newton, Iowa. 

Critical days are ahead in Donald Trump’s multiple legal battles.

Imminent rulings and looming trials could prove fateful to the Republican frontrunner’s 2024 campaign and his personal fortune. The powers and the limits of the presidency, and even America’s constitutional democracy, will be shaped by what happens next.

The collision between November’s presidential election and Trump’s extraordinary tangle of legal liabilities, trials, court appeals and tests of the rule of law is deepening as he tightens his grip on the Republican nomination. Several civil cases are moving toward their conclusions, with painful financial consequences for the ex-president. But there are growing signs that his delaying strategy, designed to postpone full accountability until after the election, could be working on several criminal fronts. And the nation’s top judges and justices are now wrestling with the consequences of Trump’s attempts to strain the guardrails of the political system to their limits. The resulting precedents will echo for as long as America remains a republic.

Trump, his lawyers, his political opponents and constitutional scholars are braced for huge looming developments.

— On Thursday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments over a decision by the Colorado Supreme Court to throw Trump off the ballot under the 14th Amendment’s ban on insurrectionists. This follows the mob attack by his supporters on January 6, 2021, incited by his false claims of electoral fraud in 2020. The case has profound importance to the 2024 election and for how future elections will unfold. The Supreme Court had little choice but to step in because differing legal rulings between several states threaten to cause national electoral chaos over Trump’s eligibility on state ballots. Maine has taken a similar step to Colorado but that case hasn’t yet reached the US Supreme Court. The Colorado case was initially seen as a long shot to go against Trump, but a flurry of briefs to the Supreme Court from historians and legal scholars show that it will not be easy for the justices to punt with a novel ruling that dismisses the issue out of hand. Key are whether the Civil War-era amendment applies to presidents and whether it is self-executing or would require a court or Congress to rule on insurrection adjudications. Trump’s supporters are using the case to rebut his critics’ claims that he’s a threat to democracy, arguing that throwing him off the ballot is a direct affront to voters and an example of election interference.

— Another huge constitutional question is in limbo pending a ruling from a federal appeals court in Washington, DC, into Trump’s sweeping claims of presidential immunity, which he argues shields him from prosecution over his attempts to overturn the 2020 election. The ruling could decide whether special counsel Jack Smith’s federal election interference case goes ahead before the election. More broadly, Trump’s calls for unlimited presidential power have huge implications for how he might behave in a second term and transform the reach of the presidency itself.

— Trump is braced for a ruling in a civil fraud trial in New York targeting himself, his adult sons and the Trump Organization. Judge Arthur Engoron has already said that repeated fraud took place. His final ruling, expected within days, centers on issues including how much Trump will have to pay for ill-gotten gains and whether he will be barred from doing business in the state where he made his name. A judgment that runs into several hundred million dollars could put significant strain on Trump’s cash reserves and wealth.

— Trump is still absorbing the consequences of a jury award late last month of $83 million to the writer E. Jean Carroll, who accused him of defamation after a judge ruled he was liable for sexual assault. Trump is putting together a new legal team to fight an appeal but many legal experts believe his chances of overturning the verdict after a trial in which he disparaged the court are slim. And the verdict is a financial hit that could multiply the pain of a big award against him in the fraud trial.

— There are increasing signs that the first of four criminal trials Trump is due to face could be over an alleged attempt to mislead voters in the 2016 election in regard to a hush money payment made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels. The case, brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, is seen by many legal experts as the least grave of the criminal threats facing Trump and could therefore play into his political claims that he’s being persecuted for political reasons — a narrative that could also shape the outcome of other criminal trials.

— In Georgia, the racketeering case alleging Trump tried to steal the 2020 election in a critical swing state brought by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is now overshadowed by revelations about her personal relationship with her lead prosecutor, Nathan Wade. Willis and Wade last week strongly rejected claims she financially benefited from hiring him. Willis also argued that “salacious” allegations should not disqualify her from leading the prosecution. Trump has seized on the drama to allege corruption and to demand the case be thrown out. If Willis is dislodged, there may be questions over whether another prosecutor would pursue the indictments in the same way, if at all.

— Another federal trial against Trump, over his alleged mishandling of classified documents and obstruction at his Mar-a-Lago resort, has been nominally set for May. But it is unclear whether it will go ahead, with Smith and Trump’s lawyers mired in discovery disputes, including over the use of classified material in the case and whether the Department of Justice properly followed procedures in recovering secret material during Trump’s post-presidency.

Trump’s cases represent an unprecedented national crisis

The magnitude of simultaneous cases facing Trump is exceptional for any criminal defendant; their momentous nature and the fact that they are hanging over the most likely GOP nominee for president make this a perilous time for the country. Given the swirl of controversy that always rages around the ex-president and the daily drumbeat of court cases proceeding at a gradual pace, it’s often easy to overlook the astonishing reality of the moment and the implications it has for the coming election and beyond.

The ex-president’s continued viability despite the depth of trouble facing him is testimony to his extraordinary transformation of the GOP. It also speaks to his skill at deflecting his own peril in a narrative of political persecution that has only bound his faithful supporters tighter to his “Make America Great Again” movement. Trump’s ability to defer accountability with legal delaying tactics and to demagogue judgments against him will now help decide whether he can pull off the more complicated mission of diminishing the impact of his trials among general election voters in November.

Trump’s last remaining GOP rival, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, is now arguing that Trump’s legal entanglements make him a disastrous pick for her party by seizing on the news that he spent more than $50 million from political action committees on legal fees. Haley told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” on Sunday that it was a “problem” that Trump will spend more time in a courtroom than in campaigning this year. “I think that the American people deserve to know which of these cases are legitimate and which ones aren’t,” Haley said. “We have got a country in disarray and a world on fire. We need a president that’s going to give us eight years of focus and discipline, not one that’s going to be sitting there ranting about how he’s a victim.” The lesson of the GOP primary so far, however, is that most Republican voters have no interest in disqualifying Trump after being convinced of his claims of a “witch-hunt.”

The chances of the country getting full accountability over Trump’s legal challenges — at least before the election — appear to be receding.

For instance, after initially hinting at swift action, a three-judge panel on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is yet to deliver a verdict, despite registering skepticism at a hearing last month over Trump’s immunity claims. This helps Trump because it delays the underlying federal election trial in the short term and builds in more of a buffer that his team could exploit by taking the maximum allowable time to mount a likely appeal to the Supreme Court. At some point, either Judge Tanya Chutkan’s calendar may fill up or she may decide that the immediate proximity of the election means the trial will have to wait. On Friday, she postponed the trial’s original March 4 start date indefinitely. While that move was a boost to Trump, Chutkan may also have been seeking to apply pressure on the appeals court judges for a ruling, Ryan Goodman, a former special counsel to the Department of Defense, told CNN’s Erin Burnett. “So we might still see a ruling from the DC Circuit then the Supreme Court decides whether or not it wants to act, and then everything could be put back on track. So, definitely a good day for President Trump, but not necessarily out of the woods,” Goodman said.

There is a common thread through all of Trump’s clashes with the legal system that applies to his personal conduct and his political behavior and aspirations: an unwillingness to submit to the rules that constrain every other American. In his civil fraud trial and in the Carroll defamation case, Trump frequently behaved with disregard toward the courts and their officers. He staged tantrums and walkouts that showed the contempt with which he views the legal system.

In his immunity case, he’s demanding all but absolute power as president — both to get him off the hook for seeking to overturn the 2020 election and apparently as a foundation for what he is promising would be a second term dedicated to “retribution,” which he’d like to conduct with a guarantee that he’d be uninhibited by the Constitution and the law. For instance, at a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, last month, Trump argued “you’re going to have to allow a president — any president — to have immunity so that that president can act and do what he feels and what his group of advisers feel is the absolute right thing.” He added: “Otherwise, you’re going to have presidents that are totally impotent and we’ve had enough of them already.”

Trump’s advocacy for powers that all previous presidents did not have represents a direct challenge to America’s founding ideals since the country was born on the rejection of an unassailable executive authority figure — a British king — with unaccountable power.

The ex-president’s power grabs in light of his assault on the 2020 election in a bid to remain in power are prompting President Joe Biden to anchor his campaign in a fight to save democracy. “This is not just a campaign. This is more of a mission, we cannot, we cannot, we cannot lose this campaign, for the good of the country,” he told campaign workers in Wilmington, Delaware, on Saturday.

With his legal maneuverings, Trump is showing that he also understands the implications of this election — one that could give him substantial powers as president to defray or dismiss many of the legal threats that he’s facing and to behave in office without future accountability.

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