Trump's legal horizon: target 2024

The FBI raid on his Mar-a-Lago mansion opens a new judicial front for the former president on his long road to re-election
Donald Trump

REUTERS/EMILY ELCONIN  -   Former U.S. President Donald Trump looks on as Michigan Secretary of State candidate Kristina Karamo speaks during a rally in Washington Township, Michigan, U.S., on April 2, 2022

The former US president is threatening to run for office in 2024 despite open cases against him.  

Donald Trump was meeting with his lawyers in New York on Monday morning, 8 August, in one of the rooms of the building that bears his name, Trump Tower, preparing to testify before the state prosecutor's office in the civil case investigating whether fraud has been committed in his business empire. Meanwhile, more than 1,600 kilometres away, in the town of Palm Beach, Florida, a dozen FBI agents raided his Mar-a-Lago mansion with a warrant issued by the Justice Department. 

A phone call notified the former president of the incident. The oral hearing was stalled. It was the first time the agency had raided the private residence of a former US president, something difficult to foresee even for an individual involved in federal court cases virtually uninterrupted since 2017. That was a big deal.  

Trump and his team checked security cameras to make sure the FBI had gained access to the mansion. Indeed, a group of agents dressed in khaki polo shirts and Bermuda shorts roamed the interior of the luxurious Mar-a-Lago compound, searching his office and the rest of the rooms. They were looking for classified documents that the former president had taken with him from his time in the White House, secret files containing sensitive information.

AP/STEVE HELBER  -   An aerial view of former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate is seen Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022, in Palm Beach, Fla. Court documents show that the FBI recovered documents labelled "top secret" from former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida

In fact, suspicions that Trump was withholding such material were confirmed almost a year ago, when the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) missed a number of important documents from his administration. They were missing. Officials demanded that the former president return all materials in his possession since his turbulent departure from the Oval Office.  

There was no response until a few months later, in January 2022, when Trump's entourage returned 15 boxes of documents stamped "Top Secret". The stamp set off alarm bells in the National Archives. A pile of sensitive information was still in the hands of the former president, which could constitute a federal offence. A month later, in February, the institution decided to refer the case to the Justice Department, headed by Attorney General Merrick Garland, a prestigious judge with ties to the Democratic Party who had been nominated by the Obama administration to fill the vacancy of the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. Republicans then thwarted his nomination in Congress. 

And so began months of enquiries that ended with a dozen FBI agents entering the Republican front-runner's most popular property, the jewel in the crown. There was enough material against him, in Garland's view, to risk a raid on Mar-a-Lago, something that would certainly galvanise his supporters. 

Donald Trump
REUTERS/MARCO BELLO  -   Supporters of former US President Donald Trump wave flags as they gather outside his Mar-a-Lago home

Rafael Calduch Torres, professor of North American International Relations at the Camilo José Cela University (UCJC), tells Atalayar that "it is highly improbable that the Public Prosecutor's Office would dare to support such an invasive intervention without more than proven evidence". "Given the legal cover of the search, the FBI has acted even with excessive caution and surely with exquisite zeal, because they know that any error, no matter how small, would be immediately exploited by Trump's extensive legal team to interrupt, block or even close any of the ongoing investigations. The fact that this has not yet happened further underpins the thoroughness of the federal agency's work." 

"In the end, it will be up to a jury to assess the evidence if a specific case is made against the former president, and therefore, no matter how well the FBI does its job, a conviction of the former president cannot be assured. That is why I reiterate the idea that there is nothing improvised in this operation," Calduch Torres concludes. 

The former president used his own social network, Truth, created days after Twitter suspended his account and only available to users residing in the United States. He needed to address his acolytes directly, to justify and establish a parallel narrative. "These are tough times for the nation," Trump conveyed. He didn't need much more to get the masses fired up. The same day of the raid, dozens of supporters of the former president rallied in the vicinity of the Palm Beach residence, cordoned off by the authorities. They charged against the FBI and spread the hackneyed conspiracy that the deep state was intensifying its persecution of Trump. 

Merrick Garland
AP/SUSAN WALSH  -   Attorney General Merrick Garland during a press conference at the Department of Justice on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022

A user of the Trumpist social network, Ricky Shiffer, 42, attempted to enter the agency's headquarters in Cincinnati with a gun. He was shot by agents. The former president was once again leading his hordes against the institutions. 

State Attorney General Merrick Garland came to the defence of the FBI agents and took responsibility for the search of Trump's residence: "Faithful adherence to the rule of law is the fundamental principle of the Department of Justice and our democracy. Upholding it means applying the law uniformly, without fear or favour". 

Biden had no knowledge of the raid, according to the White House. The president wanted to distance himself from minute one from an investigation that could be interpreted in a partisan, politically motivated way, just weeks before the mid-term elections in which the Democratic majority in Congress and the Senate is in jeopardy. Initial suspicions and evidence, however, appear solid. According to the search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, the FBI was seeking evidence related to at least three federal crimes.  

Orden judicial
AP/JON ELSWICK  -   The Justice Department's motion before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida to unseal the search warrant the FBI received before searching former President Donald Trump's Florida estate is pictured Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022. Attorney General Merrick Garland cited the "substantial public interest in this matter" in announcing the request

Trump is alleged to have violated three laws in one fell swoop. First, a section of the Espionage Act - in force since World War I - that punishes the unauthorised possession or exchange of information related to national defence matters; second, a law that criminalises the concealment or destruction of documents to impede a judicial process; and third, a law against the theft or disabling of government documents.

Among the materials withheld by the former president were reportedly prominent files such as correspondence with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. According to sources consulted by The Washington Post, Trump is said to have collected documents related to nuclear weapons, particularly sensitive material that intelligence agencies often withheld from him when he was president because of his careless use of the documents.

FBI agents seized a total of 11 boxes in the former President's possession during the raid at Mar-a-Lago. 11 boxes full of files that travelled back to Washington from Florida, almost two years after the convulsive elections that thwarted Trump's second and final term in office. By withholding secret material, the Republican leader may have endangered national security. If he had leaked or shared intelligence information, something that is not known at this point, he could have incurred a criminal offence, punishable by harsh prison sentences. 

Donald Trump
PHOTO/AFP  -   Former U.S. President Donald Trump waves as he walks to a vehicle in New York City, Aug. 10, 2022

Trump has defended himself against these accusations by claiming that he had declassified these files while in office. A legal ploy that, during the Bush administration, was considered valid. In theory, presidents can declassify documents without leaving a written record, but they lose this power as soon as they leave office. 

The Justice Department decided to keep the affidavit, the affidavit that led to the raid on Trump's mansion, under seal in the face of media pressure for what it considers a case of "historic importance". Prosecutors fear that any leaks could jeopardise the investigation into the former president. 

Trump, in a bid to challenge the authorities, publicly requested disclosure of the document despite the reluctance of his advisers, a request on which federal judge Bruce E. Reinhart. "I am unwilling to consider that the affidavit should be sealed in its entirety. I believe, based on my initial careful review of the affidavit, that there are portions that could be preemptively disclosed," said the judge, who made a Solomonic decision: the Justice Department must release the document within seven days while withholding portions crucial to the investigation.

Rudy Giuliani
AP/JACQUELYN MARTIN  -   Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was a lawyer for former President Donald Trump. Giuliani is scheduled to appear in an Atlanta courtroom on 17 August 2022 to testify before a special grand jury in an investigation into possible illegal attempts to influence the 2020 election in Georgia
Stop the count  

But the possible violation of the Espionage Act is not the only open court case facing the former president. Since May, the tycoon has been the subject of a criminal investigation in Atlanta for his shady role in pressuring Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, also a Republican, to "find those 11,780 votes" he needed to beat Biden. In the conversation, recorded and published by The Washington Post, the former president and his allies put Raffensperger on the ropes to manipulate the vote count. 

Fulton County Prosecutor Fani Willis is leading the investigation into a multi-count indictment charging conspiracy to commit voter fraud. Former New York City mayor and longtime Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani was questioned on Wednesday in the case that comes closest to ensnaring the Republican front-runner in a legal tangle. 

Capitol Hill assault: coup d'état? 

A panel of seven Democrats and two Republicans has been investigating for more than a year in the House of Representatives the deadly assault on the Capitol, which claimed five lives and wounded about 100 people in January 2021, just two weeks before Biden's inauguration. The purpose of the commission is to shed light on the events that led to the greatest challenge to US democracy in decades and, above all, to dismantle the role played by then-President Trump, who many point to as the main instigator of the massacre. 

Asalto Capitolio
REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS  -   Explosion caused by a police munition as supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump gather outside the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, U.S., January 6, 202

Democrat Bennie Thompson chairs a committee that has so far held eight public hearings and plans to present more incriminating evidence in September. The committee, however, does not have the legal standing to prosecute the former president. Its members are considering referring the case to the Justice Department, which is conducting its own criminal investigation. The prosecutor's office has its work cut out for it. 

The most serious accusation against Trump came in early June, when Thompson said: "January 6 was the culmination of an attempted coup d'état." Trump would have tried to subvert the results by force, planning a plot to occupy the Capitol and prevent the certification of Biden's victory at the polls, according to the committee chairman. For Calduch Torres, this scenario did not come to pass: "In my opinion, and this may be a controversial opinion, I do not believe that [Trump] had a plan to overthrow American democracy and therefore stage a coup d'état". 

"I do believe that, in a country where the individual and collective right of opposition is so deeply rooted, there was a scenario that he tried to use to his advantage - he is a great opportunist - without being very clear about the possible consequences, something also very common for him, since he felt that the election had been stolen from him and from the testimonies of those close to him, nobody in his entourage was willing to pay the price of "putting his feet on the ground." But precisely these fissures within the hard core of the family lead me to think that it was more a personal attack, badly managed and without being clear about the consequences, than a premeditated plan", argues the specialist. "I can't argue that he wanted to stage a coup d'état, much less that the oldest modern democracy would be so fragile as to fall because a few thousand people stormed the physical space of the legislative branch". 

Comité 6 enero
AP/J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE  -   An image of a mock hanging on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, is shown as the House select committee investigating the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds a hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 9, 2022
Trump's empire falters 

The former president, in fact, was due to appear on Monday last week at the New York District Attorney's Office to appear in the case investigating the dubious business practices that have kept his business emporium going. State Attorney General Letitia James is trying to clarify in a civil investigation whether the Trump family has inflated the value of its hotels, golf courses and other assets in order to obtain favourable loans, i.e. whether tax fraud has been committed. But then the Mar-a-Lago raid came to light. Days later, the Republican invoked the Fifth Amendment. He exercised his right not to testify, something he had repeatedly ridiculed as president. 

Allen Weisselberg, the Trump organisation's chief financial officer, has testified in the investigation. At his arraignment in Manhattan court on Thursday, the 75-year-old businessman pleaded guilty after reaching a plea deal. He will spend five months behind bars and then five months on probation. He is not expected to testify against the former president

"Trump's real problem is not the disqualification, because at the end of the day he only has the possibility of returning to the presidency for a maximum of four years in a second term, and I don't know of any ex-president who then settles for being a senator or representative", Professor Calduch Torres told Atalayar. "The real problem is that, due to the reforms he has promoted and the seriousness of his possible charges, if he goes to trial, there is a likelihood that he could end up in prison, and that would totally exclude him from ever holding elected political power in the country again"

Trump Tower
REUTERS/DAVID DELGADO  -   A protester calling for Donald Trump's arrest holds a sign in front of Trump Tower
Division in the Republican Party 

The legal maelstrom that Trump is going through has imploded in the middle of the GOP primaries, in which the Republicans are choosing their House of Representatives candidates for the midterm elections scheduled for next November. At stake is the majority in Congress and the Senate, both narrowly held by the Democrats. The elections are essential to control the pace of national politics until 2024. Biden's remaining two years in office could become very long for the White House occupant if he loses control of the legislative branch for good. 

The Republican Party arrives at the polls fractured. The party is divided into two practically irreconcilable wings: the Trump supporters, led by the tycoon, and the former president's detractors, led by the combative Congresswoman Liz Cheney, Trump's nemesis and one of the two Republican members of the committee investigating the assault on the Capitol. No reunion is possible. The parties are vying for leadership. 

Trump is stronger. The former president has lined up his pawns to crush all opposition within the party. Cheney herself, daughter of George W. Bush's former vice-president Dick Cheney and a Republican with pedigree, was defeated in her bid against lawyer Harriet Hageman in the Wyoming primary, where she won just two years ago with more than 70% of the vote. This time, however, her opponent had the explicit support of the former president, whose camp has taken the reins of the party. Of the 10 Republican congressmen who voted in favour of the second impeachment against Trump, four have fallen against candidates from his camp.

Donald Trump
AFP/SCOTT OLSON  -   People dressed as former Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan arrive at a rally with former President Donald Trump on August 5, 2022 in Waukesha, Wisconsin

Cheney plans to run in the primaries against Trump, but the tycoon is way ahead. He plans to announce his candidacy for 2024 with the aim of running for a second and final term. He will wait for the most opportune moment to make it official, but the decision has been made. With the strong backing of the party, it is only a matter of time, although the legal cases may play against him and frustrate his plans. 

Calduch Torres also sees no solid alternatives to the former president in the GOP: "No figure in the Republican Party right now has the charisma, the loyalty, or the enthusiasm of so many people. But that is why it is so important for him to get the message across that he is being unjustly accused, because if there is a final trial and a conviction, and if the process is sold as a clear guarantee, there will be a real implosion of the party - which is why he is already settling accounts with the Republicans who supported his impeachment - because that is when the race for succession will open up".

"In the absence of these two conditions - an exquisitely safe process and a firm conviction - he will undoubtedly emerge stronger and it doesn't matter whether he wins the election or not because it will condition the future of the GOP. The second perspective is that there are no serious alternatives on the Democratic side either. Biden is not doing well - even less so in economic terms - and there are no moderate replacements or emerging figures that can command broad majorities across the country. So the problem is not just who can be the alternative to Trump, but who can be alternatives in general."

Coordinator America: José Antonio Sierra