- Former President Donald Trump faces numerous legal issues at the federal, state, and local levels that could last for years.
- His administration, campaign, business interests, and role in the insurrection are under scrutiny.
- Officials in Fulton County, Georgia, may be Trump’s most immediate threat.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
Former President Donald Trump just beat a Senate conviction on charges of inciting an insurrection against the US government. But his legal jeopardy is just getting started.
His presidential immunity has been gone since January 20th, and there’s a brewing storm of federal, state, and local investigations and lawsuits guaranteed to follow him for years.
There are both civil and criminal matters, targeting his administration, campaign committee, business interests, as well as Trump himself.
Two matters are most pressing.
First: Trump’s words and actions during a “Save America” rally on January 6 in Washington, DC, that preceded the violent attack on the US Capitol. The House impeached Trump for his role in the insurrection. That’s very different from what federal prosecutors could do. They haven’t ruled out investigating the ex-president for inciting the attack, during which five people — including a US Capitol Police officer — died.
Second: Trump in January pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” additional votes in that state’s presidential contest — a desperate gambit to overturn the results of a presidential election he lost.
Federal, state, and local prosecution is possible for Trump on possible election-law violations, several legal experts told Insider.
Already, prosecutors in Fulton County, Georgia, the state’s most populous urban center, said on February 10 they were officially launching a criminal investigation into Trump’s election-related actions.
Trump did have the option before leaving office to save himself from federal prosecution. He could have attempted to preemptively pardon himself, a legally dubious move if he’d tried it that still wouldn’t have protected him from state and local legal charges.
No doubt Trump will put up a fight. He did so during his Senate impeachment trial, where defense lawyer Michael van der Veen argued that “it is time to allow our nation to move forward. It is time to address the real business pressing this nation,” citing the COVID-19 pandemic, economy, and racial inequality, among others.
But that’s likely wishful thinking. Even Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky acknowledged as much.
“President Trump is still liable for everything he did in office,” McConnell told his Senate colleagues after senators voted 57-43 to convict Trump — short of a two-thirds majority needed. “Former presidents are not immune from being accountable.”
Here’s a look at the specific — and numerous — legal dramas that could haunt Trump for years to come:
Inciting an attack on the US Capitol
As Congress gathered on January 6 for a contentious day certifying the 2020 presidential electoral votes, Trump and some of his closest allies spoke to supporters at an outdoor “Save America” rally just south of the White House.
Trump, ever-bombastic in such settings, spoke less like a president and more as a general leading troops into battle.
“And we fight. We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” Trump said.
“Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump!” the crowd shouted as Trump egged them on.
“We’re going walk down to the Capitol … You have to show strength, and you have to be strong,” Trump said.
And walk down to the Capitol the pro-Trump protesters did.
But they didn’t stop there. They burst through police lines and into restricted areas of the Capitol grounds. Some shattered windows and broke down doors, and hundreds streamed into the Capitol building, which they proceeded to infiltrate and trash.
One woman and a Capitol Police officer died of injuries they sustained in the melee, while about 140 officers were injured, according to the Capitol Police’s union. Three others died from medical issues they experienced. Two more police officers died by suicide in the following days.
US Attorney Michael Sherwin of the District of Columbia has said “all actors” who participated in the Capitol attack, including those who “assisted or facilitated or played some ancillary role in this,” could face federal charges.
That includes Trump himself, as well as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer who called on Trump supporters to engage in a “trial by combat.”
The Department of Justice maintains a decades-old policy of not prosecuting sitting presidents. But federal prosecutors are now free to pursue Trump if they choose to do so.
Numerous federal laws — from the obvious to the archaic — could apply to people who participated in the attack on the Capitol, including rioting, rebellion, insurrection, and sedition.
Trump’s impeachment trial, which was not a criminal proceeding but a constitutional one, unearthed numerous details about the former president’s involvement in the January 6 insurrection.
Nothing would prevent prosecutors from drawing on evidence US House impeachment managers surfaced against Trump. It’s a good bet Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland gets asked for his views on the subject when he testifies at his confirmation hearings on February 22 and 23 before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Georgia vote-call fallout
Trump’s ever-flailing quest to remain president despite losing a free and fair election hit its apex soon after 2021 started. During an hour long phone call on January 2, Trump demanded that Raffensperger, a fellow Republican, “find” 11,780 votes in Georgia — a state that Trump lost by roughly that many votes.
Numerous congressional Democrats, along with the nonpartisan watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, called for federal criminal investigations.
“This recording makes Nixon’s ‘smoking-gun’ tape sound tame,” Rep. Don Beyer, a Virginia Democrat, said.
“There were just a number of statements Donald Trump made that fit the definition of attempting to engage in election fraud,” Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu of California added.
Trump could face trouble at the state level too.
Georgia law considers “conspiracy to commit election fraud” a crime punishable as a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the nature of the offense.
There’s also a Georgia law against the “criminal solicitation to commit election fraud,” which occurs when someone “solicits, requests, commands, importunes, or otherwise attempts to cause the other person to engage” in election fraud.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis sent a letter to Raffensperger, Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, and Attorney General Chris Carr — all Republicans — asking them to retain sensitive materials that are related to Trump’s phone call, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported.
“This investigation includes, but is not limited to, potential violations of Georgia law prohibiting the solicitation of election fraud, the making of false statements to state and local governmental bodies, conspiracy, racketeering, violation of oath of office and any involvement in violence or threats related to the election’s administration,” Willis wrote.
Willis, a Democrat, signaled in a January statement — immediately after Trump’s call came to light — that her office was preparing to launch an investigation.
“Like many Americans, I have found the news reports about the president’s telephone call with the Georgia secretary of state disturbing,” she said. “As district attorney, I will enforce the law without fear or favor. Anyone who commits a felony violation of Georgia law in my jurisdiction will be held accountable.”
Whether Carr, Georgia’s state attorney general, investigates in parallel is another matter.
A Republican, Carr has already attracted Trump’s ire and may be reluctant to court additional political pain, several Georgia election-law attorneys told Insider. Raffensperger, pointing to a potential conflict of interest, told ABC News his office wouldn’t likely conduct an investigation and that Fulton County would be an “appropriate venue” for any investigation of Trump.
Trump’s actions on his phone call with Raffensperger are “brazen criminality taking place in broad daylight,” Marc Hershovitz, an Atlanta political-law attorney, said. “The president of the United States committed multiple felonies. … What Richard Nixon did pales in comparison to what we see now.”
Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, as well as Trump’s attorneys Cleta Mitchell and Kurt Hillbert, were also on the Georgia call and could face scrutiny.
It’s “quite clear” under Georgia law that intentionally soliciting, requesting, or commanding someone to violate the Georgia election code is itself a crime, said Kurt Kastorf, a former Justice Department trial attorney who now practices privately in Georgia and Washington, DC.
What’s complicated, he added, is determining and proving that Trump intended to commit a crime.
“I would expect that the administration will respond to these leaked tapes by asserting that they have evidence of irregularities in the vote and were simply imploring the secretary of state to ensure a fair election,” Kastorf said. “Whether this argument is a sincere one is tough to discern.”
Trump’s behavior on the Georgia call is “beyond inappropriate,” “not right and proper,” and came “mighty close” to violating Georgia state law, Bryan Sells, an election-law attorney in Atlanta, said.
But Sells questioned whether Trump’s actions rose to the level of being criminal, given that in his estimation, Trump didn’t clearly coerce Raffensperger into breaking a specific state law.
Jake Evans, an election-law attorney at Holland & Knight and the chairman of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, said in his capacity as commission chairman he wouldn’t comment on the substance of Trump’s call unless his commission formally reviewed it.
“At which point I would consider and comment on the matter at the public meeting that the issue was considered at,” he said.
Cracking a Trump campaign shell company
At the heart of Trump’s failed 2020 reelection campaign is a secretive shell company, American Made Media Consultants.
Insider revealed in December that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, as well as a deputy of Trump’s son Eric Trump, helped create the shell company, through which the campaign hid the true sources of political payments — including Trump family members.
Three Democratic members of Congress, in two separate requests filed in December, have asked the Department of Justice and Federal Election Commission to investigate whether the company violated election laws. So, too, has the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, in part citing Insider’s reporting.
In a timely and potentially troubling twist for Trump, the National Defense Authorization Act included a provision that bans anonymous shell companies established in the US. Trump vetoed the act, but Congress — for the first time in the Republican’s four-year term — voted on January 1 to override the president. Whether the Biden administration will use its new power to investigate American Made Media Consultants is unclear.
The owners of such companies must now reveal themselves to the Treasury Department, though not to the general public. The Treasury Department is now part of President Joe Biden’s administration.
Separately, the FEC is also considering a complaint filed by Rep. Bill Pascrell, a New Jersey Democrat, accusing the Trump campaign of violating federal election law by not disclosing debts owed to various municipal governments for police and public-safety services they provided to the campaign.
New York, New York
Even if Trump had pardoned himself, presidential pardons don’t apply to state-level legal actions. Nor does Biden’s reluctance for the federal government to aggressively pursue questions of Trump’s wrongdoing.
Enter New York state, which could play a leading role in the legal pursuit of a post-presidency Trump. Officials in the Empire State are already deep into digging in and around Trump’s orbit.
New York Attorney General Letitia James, for one, is civilly investigating whether the Trump Organization illegally inflated the value of its assets in a bid to score tax breaks.
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, in a separate matter, appears to be criminally investigating whether Trump and the Trump Organization engaged in bank and insurance fraud.
It’s a fight Vance is now waging before the Supreme Court, where the justices are still deliberating over a request from the president’s lawyers to quash a subpoena for financial documents held by Trump’s longtime accounting firm.
“The New York authorities will stop at nothing to go after him,” Alan Dershowitz, an attorney who represented Trump during his 2020 Senate impeachment trial, recently told Insider. “It’s all political. They don’t like Trump. Even though I don’t think there’s any ‘there there,’ it’ll be very easy for them to comb the statute books and try to find something.”
The Department of Justice is already investigating allegations of a “bribery conspiracy scheme” related to Trump’s presidential pardons, according to federal court documents unsealed in December.
Trump has denied wrongdoing, and the Justice Department said in a statement to Insider in early December that “no government official was or is currently a subject or target of the investigation disclosed in this filing.”
That all came before Trump in late December issued a wave of high-profile pardons, including to political allies, Mueller investigation subjects, and people close to the Trump family. The US Constitution grants presidents unfettered power to issue pardons as they see fit.
Tax man’s revenge?
For years, Trump has refused to voluntarily release his federal tax returns, citing an ongoing audit by the IRS — even though an audit doesn’t preclude Trump from making such information public.
Trump tax-return data obtained by The New York Times indicated Trump paid little or no federal income tax during 11 of the 18 years for which it had information. Trump also used creative methods to reduce his tax bills and score refunds — a reason the IRS is auditing his taxes in the first place.
The Treasury Department under Biden could also give investigators in the Democratic-led US House Trump’s tax returns. Lawmakers have spent several years attempting to obtain them, to no avail, through the courts.
But such a move could undercut Biden’s desire to move beyond Trump’s term in office and focus on his own agenda.
Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, has also called on the IRS to probe nonprofit organizations supportive of Trump who helped organize the January 6 rally that preceded the attack on the US Capitol.
Mueller investigation hangover
In his testimony before Congress in July 2019, the former special counsel confirmed his team’s work could be the basis for future prosecutions against Trump.
Whether the Mueller investigation makes some sort of comeback will be in the hands of Garland and a DOJ that comes out of a four-year period where Trump’s pressure on the department was itself under criminal investigation. President Barack Obama nominated Garland to the US Supreme Court in 2016, but a Republican-controlled Senate refused to conduct a confirmation hearing.
A never-ending Trump inauguration
In early 2020, Attorney General Karl Racine of Washington, DC, filed a lawsuit against Trump’s 2017 inaugural organizing committee.
The suit, which is pending in DC Superior Court, alleges Trump used nonprofit money to enrich his family business.
Federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York are also investigating spending by Trump’s inauguration committee, which is organized as a nonprofit corporation.
Stormy Daniels, Michael Cohen, and ‘Individual-1’
The Southern District of New York named the president as “Individual-1” in 2018 court filings when they charged Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen with making illegal hush-money payments out of campaign contributions to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump.
The government’s investigation has since ended related to Cohen’s campaign-finance violations, according to a federal judge’s July 2019 order.
But SDNY officials aren’t done with the president. Federal prosecutors have also been investigating Giuliani and two associates who were accused of being involved in a pressure campaign to get the Ukrainian government to launch an investigation into Biden and his son Hunter — the same effort that prompted the president’s impeachment in the House.
The two associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, are scheduled to go on trial over allegations that they used a shell company to make an illegal $325,000 donation to a committee backing Trump’s 2020 campaign. Both men have pleaded not guilty in their case, which has been delayed for months because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Truth commission cometh?
Several congressional Democrats told Insider last year they’d like to create a bipartisan Congress-backed “truth commission” to investigate and publicly disclose findings on Trump’s four years as president.
Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, a former federal prosecutor and state attorney general, endorsed a similar idea — a special congressional committee — to start in 2021.
“A special committee provides a single repository for evidence and testimony, and could without hindrance investigate schemes that crossed agency and committee jurisdictions,” Whitehouse wrote in Salon.
Among issues such a commission might investigate are the Trump administration’s COVID-19 response, the separation of immigrant children from their parents, and the unprecedented blurring of lines between a sitting president’s governmental, political, and business interests.
Congress has charted such commissions before. The 9/11-related National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the USand National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling are the most notable of the past 20 years.
But some congressional Democrats may be concerned that such a commission would end up becoming political theater and overshadow or detract from the Biden administration’s efforts around a slate of issues from the economy to healthcare, and the federal government’s pandemic response.