What does Donald Trump’s announcement that he plans to seek the White House in 2024 mean for the numerous criminal probes into the former president?
Not a whole lot.
“The Justice Department opened a criminal investigation into Donald Trump even though he was the former president, a likely candidate, and the de facto leader of the Republican Party,” Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, wrote on Twitter.
“His announcement today changes nothing. It was already ‘baked in’ to DOJ’s decision.”
Trump faces an ongoing investigation into his attempts to stay in power after losing in 2020, a sprawling effort spanning numerous states and federal agencies that culminated with the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
And in Georgia, Trump faces a similar criminal probe into his 2020 efforts, one where courts have already stepped in to force participation by Trump allies subpoenaed by the district attorney there, a group that includes Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows.
And the Department of Justice (DOJ) has already executed a search warrant at Trump’s home, indicating he may have violated the Espionage Act and illegally retained government documents after he transported more than 10,000 government records, including classified information, to Mar-a-Lago.
In Trump’s announcement, some see a faulty attempt to avoid a potential indictment.
“A big reason Trump announced his run is he fears criminal prosecution. He’s a desperate man, a threatened and rabid animal, who could face multiple indictments (the stolen classified documents, Georgia) over the next year,” George Conway, husband to former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, wrote in a Tuesday night op-ed in The Washington Post that landed amid Trump’s announcement.
“He thinks running for president, and the specter of violence from his fringiest supporters, will protect him from the prosecutors,” Conway added.
“So just imagine what Trump would do to stay out of jail.”
The DOJ typically adheres to an unwritten rule to avoid any prosecution that could influence the results of an election in the 60 days prior to that contest.
But the agency is still well ahead of that 2024 deadline, something Trump’s early announcement doesn’t change.
And there’s nothing about running for office or even being a former president that immunizes him.
“The fact that somebody is prominent does not mean that they don’t get prosecuted,” Andrew Weissmann, one of the lead prosecutors on former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump, told Joy Reid during an appearance on MSNBC.
“It is not a mitigating factor, as I said, I think that is an aggravating factor. And if he runs for office, he runs for office. But he’s still a civilian like the rest of us, as you said, and the rule of law means that we are all treated equally. And I really am confident that [Attorney General] Merrick Garland is going to do that.”
Garland seemed to nod to that dynamic when he held a press conference to address the execution of a warrant at Trump’s Florida home.
“Upholding the rule of law means applying the law evenly without fear or favor,” he said in August.
Bringing charges against a former president would still be an unprecedented decision for the Justice Department, which faces hurdles in its own cases and would likely want to get a prosecution underway well ahead of the 2024 election cycle.
Some legal experts have suggested that the DOJ could struggle to score a conviction against Trump on the Jan. 6 front, at least when it comes to his role in directing the mob that descended on the Capitol.
And while the Mar-a-Lago case could be more promising, the DOJ is locked in a battle to overturn the appointment of a special master, a decision that has delayed its ability to review more than 10,000 government records Trump has argued he has the right to retain.
Though not classified, they could still help build the DOJ’s case, particularly if they illuminate how Trump handled the records, some of which were found in his home office among his personal effects.
Legal advisers have also warned against the DOJ appointing a special counsel to oversee the investigations, arguing the move would do little to head off complaints of politicization while delaying any prosecution.
Trump made clear in his campaign kickoff speech he would continue to rail against the justice system, saying “I am a victim” and listing the FBI among the “gravest threats to our civilization.”
“Nothing is greater than the weaponization from the system, the FBI or the DOJ. We must conduct a top to bottom overhaul to clean out the festering rods and corruption of Washington, D.C.,” he said.
“The journey ahead of us will not be easy,” Trump added. “Anyone who truly seeks to take on this rigged and corrupt system will be faced with a storm of fire that only a few could understand.”
Trump’s announcement came after weeks of forecasting and hinting, with the former president suggesting he would likely run essentially since leaving office.
It’s a dynamic that has likely been considered by the Justice Department since Day 1.
Elliot Williams, who previously served as deputy assistant attorney general for legislative affairs at the DOJ under the Obama administration, said, “Whether he announced his candidacy to avoid getting charged or not, I don’t think that changes the calculus for the Justice Department or should.”
“Had the Justice Department charged Donald Trump with a crime yesterday, what would have been any different with charging him today?” Williams said in an appearance on CNN.
“What is different today than yesterday, based on his announcing as a candidate? There are still the same political questions just with respect to him being a former president, regardless of whether he announced his candidacy. The question is … are the facts and law there to indict this individual? And it appears that in some of the instances it looks like there might be.”