WASHINGTON – Now that the New York attorney general sued Donald Trump for fraud, one thing seems nearer certainty: If Trump runs for president again in 2024, he will do so while defending himself in a court of law.
Maybe several courts of law.
The long-running panoply of investigations into Trump – over his business practices, his handling of classified information, his efforts to overturn his election loss in 2020, and his role in the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021 – will burden any 2024 presidential run by the former chief executive, analysts said.
New York Attorney General Letitia James’ suit — while a civil matter rather than a criminal one — takes things a step further than those other probes: It is the most definitive sign yet that Trump could be pulled into court while running for president, an unprecedented position for a major party candidate.
Citing James’ recital of allegations against Trump, including fraud running into the tens of millions of dollars or more, historian Michael Beschloss said, “I have never seen anything remotely like this in the history of the American presidency.”
And with a separate tax fraud case currently also moving against the Trump Organization, Trump’s legal woes will be in the headlines for months, or perhaps even years, to come.
“It will be in the news over and over again,” said Andrew Weissmann, a former federal prosecutor who was part of the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
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Anger – and discovery
Trump and his allies— including some past allies — say the investigations will only help him politically as voters rally around a man they believe is being unfairly targeted.
Former Attorney General Bill Barr, who has criticized Trump over his actions in a classified documents case, criticized James over the lawsuit. If she fails to make her case, Barr said, it could hurt other investigations with voters who believe the government is “piling on” Trump.
“I don’t think it’s going to hurt him,” Barr said. “The more overboard these cases get, the more I think it’s going to help him.”
Trump promotes that message in every public appearance while denouncing the various investigations against him, especially the lawsuit filed Wednesday by James.
“The American public is really angry,” Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity on Wednesday.
Weissmann said Trump’s reaction is understandable – “he thrives on being the victim and running against the elites” – but could be hard to sustain as cases develop against him.
Discovery, or the information exchange process in court, and submission of court documents could be “hideous” for Trump and his cause, Weissmann said.
A 2024 test in 2022
Trump has not formally declared a 2024 presidential candidacy. He does frequently flirts with the idea, especially after bad legal news, including James’ lawsuit announcement.
In the lawsuit, the attorney general said Trump and members of his family fraudulently over-valued properties to secure bank loans or de-valued them to reduce tax bills.
Claiming the valuations amounted to financial fraud, James said: “There aren’t two sets of laws for people in this natio. Former presidents must be held to the same standards as everyday Americans.” James also said she has referred the Trump case to federal prosecutors in New York and the Internal Revenue Service.
Trump, who accused James of seeking to criminalize standard business practices, has been under investigative clouds since leaving the White House on Jan. 20, 2021.
His single term ended two weeks after a mob of supporters stormed the Capitol in an unsuccessful effort to block President Joe Biden’s election victory. The insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, followed weeks of false claims by Trump of a stolen election.
Now a grand jury in Atlanta is investigating Trump’s pressure on state officials to overturn his election loss in Georgia.
The Department of Justice is investigating whether Trump has culpability for the insurrection.
The DOJ also is investigating Trump’s removal of classified information from the White House. That probe inspired the Aug. 8 search of Trump’s home in Mar-a-Lago, Fla., by the FBI, a stunning legal development that amped up speculation about the former president’s political future.
Strong with Republicans, weak with independents
Trump-backed candidates in the current midterm elections are in some cases struggling.
Candidates who won nominations largely because of Trump’s backing are struggling in general elections, including races in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Arizona that will decide which party controls the U.S. Senate.
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“The 2022 mid-terms are a test case” for the impact of Trump’s legal difficulties, said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center.
In Ohio – a key, red-leaning state in most presidential elections – only 26% of independents have a favorable view of Trump, Paleologos said.
“He’s always had to fight for independents,” Paleologos said. “The investigations don’t help him.”
A number of people question how Trump could run a credible presidential candidacy while tied up in court, especially if he is hit with criminal indictments.
Michael Cohen, the former Trump attorney whose congressional testimony led to the James investigation over property valuations, said he always doubted there will be another Trump presidential campaign and said he thinks Trump only talks about it in order to raise money.
“I never thought he was going to run in 2024, and that this was a stunt in order to grift off of his supporters for as long as possible,” said Cohen, a one-time confidante who has since turned on his former boss.
Given the James lawsuit and the other investigations, Cohen said he just doesn’t see how Trump can mount a presidential campaign, or how voters could take him seriously. Cohen said: “There is no way he could legitimately run a race with all of the legal baggage that is plaguing him.”
Grand juries investigating Trump aren’t expected to take any formal action against the ex-president before this year’s Election Day on Nov. 8. In the meantime, however, news leaks, pre-trial litigation, and legal discovery may continue to rain down on Trump, a preview of legal and political storms to come.
The Trump Organization, the former president’s company, has been charged with fraud in a separate case, as well, and faces trial in October. Some of the testimony is expected to touch on Trump and his business dealings. Little of this is expected to help Trump politically.
But Matt Wolking, a deputy communications director for Trump’s 2020 campaign said that, if anything, the James lawsuit and the other investigations will only encourage Trump to run. “It certainly gives him an incentive to fight back,” he said.
Republicans point out the investigations may not loom as the biggest issues facing voters when Republican primaries roll around in early 2024 – especially if the economy continues to struggle. The inflation rate, for example, has been hovering near a 40-year high, squeezing Americans on everything from rent to the cost of eggs.
There’s also the fact that Trump survived any number of scandals on his way to the White House the first time, said Liz Mair, an anti-Trump Republican political consultant.
“The problem with Donald Trump,” Mair said, “is that he doesn’t operate in the same reality as everybody else.”