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Kimberly Black / Gavel Media

The Implications of the Donald Trump Indictment

In a groundbreaking move on March 30th, a New York grand jury indicted former President Donald Trump—the first time a former or current U.S. President has been charged with a crime. The indictment, unsealed on April 4th, alleges Trump committed thirty-four felony counts of business fraud, referencing the hush money paid to adult film star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 election that was reported as business expenses. Despite this being the first time a U.S. President has been charged with a crime, I’ve heard relatively no one talk about it, or its implications around campus, but more questions must be asked and discussed. The case itself has made history, and its legal grounds are controversial, but its political implications could be monumental. Trump continues to be the leading Republican candidate in the 2024 Presidential election, and running for, and possibly winning, the presidency while being charged with felonies could have many groundbreaking outcomes. 

Given Trump has broken the U.S. presidential record of two impeachments and a criminal indictment, the first question to ask is, “Will Republicans rally around Trump?” The short answer, so far, is yes. While some might think that Trump’s unprecedented rule-breaking would make him lose support, that is not the case. Even leading Republicans who haven’t been vehement Trump supporters, like House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, have rallied around him. The Republican party is divided right now, but this “unjust” indictment seems to unify Trump’s entire party, allies and non-alike, empowering it to support him. 

The next question to ask is, “Does the prosecution have a strong case?” Once again, the answer is yes. Former Manhattan chief assistant DA Karen Agnifilo and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution outlined this unique case in a recent New York Times article. In short, in New York State and Manhattan especially, where Trump is being charged, white-collar crimes like business fraud and campaign finance are regularly brought up. The defendants are regularly found guilty—and Trump is no different. Further, according to Agnifilo, “One thing is clear: Mr. Trump cannot persuasively argue he is being singled out for some unprecedented theory of prosecution. He is being treated as any other New Yorker would be with similar evidence against him.” 

Another big question to ask is, “What happens to the election if Trump is found guilty?” If Trump is found guilty, each of the thirty-four counts against him carries a maximum of four years in prison, with a total maximum sentence of one hundred and thirty-six years. Even though he could be found guilty, given Trump’s age and lack of previous offenses, it’s hard to tell whether or not he would spend any time in prison. A former U.S. President going to prison would be unprecedented, but additionally, if he continues his bid for the 2024 election, which looks likely, he could rule from prison. For one, the U.S. Constitution only requires that presidents are 35 years of age, natural-born citizens of the U.S., and have been residents for fourteen years. Plus, there is already a legal precedent of ruling from prison. Even if Trump doesn’t go to jail, a Presidential candidate and possible President-elect being charged with a felony is uncharted territory. Besides the fact that he can still run and rule, it’s unclear what else would happen. 

Conversely, what precedent does it set if Trump isn’t found guilty? It would be one thing for Trump not to go to jail, but if Trump is found not guilty, that will raise another question: are presidents above the law? If Trump makes it through this criminal trial—and also his two impeachments—without any punishment, it would reinforce the unfortunate idea that presidents, Trump especially, are implicitly immune to the law. After every impeachment and investigation against Trump that ends in no accountability, his supporters become more empowered, and it would happen again if Trump is found not guilty, arguably to a greater degree. Once again, his supporters’ sympathy, support, and belief that he can do no wrong would be reinforced; but worse, even if he continues on this rule-breaking path for the remainder of his career, being found not guilty on thirty-four felony counts would prove to everyone that he will never be held accountable. Theoretically, Trump could come out of this trial stronger, angrier, and possibly even the president. 

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