The legal dangers facing former president Donald Trump rose this week, after the New York attorney general filed a fraud lawsuit that could effectively shutter the Trump Organization and the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals allowed federal investigators to continue their probe into classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago.
These and other setbacks for Trump come as at least a half dozen additional legal efforts proceed against the president and his allies — committing him to months of legal wrangling as he seeks to raise his political profile for a possible 2024 bid while also increasing the prospect of becoming the first former U.S. president to face indictment after leaving office.
Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed dozens of his former advisers, and many others, as part of a sprawling investigation into efforts to obstruct the transfer of power after the 2020 election. Separately, a Georgia grand jury has been looking at allegations that he tried to obstruct that state’s electoral count by pressuring secretary of state Brad Raffensperger (R) to “find” enough votes to overturn the election.
An aspiring corporate partner for his new social media company has received subpoenas from the Securities and Exchange Commission. District attorneys in Westchester, N.Y., and Manhattan have ongoing investigations of his companies. One of his sexual assault accusers filed court papers last month disclosing her intent to sue him under a recently-passed New York law that offers exceptions to the standard statute of limitations for sex crimes.
Attorneys aligned with the Democratic Party have even begun to lay the groundwork for legal challenges if he declares another presidential campaign, under the premise that his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, as revealed by congressional investigators, bars him from serving in office under section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which disqualifies those who “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” from holding public office.
The breadth of current and potential legal challenges are large even by the standards of Trump, who has spent much of his adult life in litigation. He has returned to old tactics in response, seeking to delay proceedings against him, refusing to admit any misdeed and using the claims against him to rally his political supporters.
“The people behind these savage witch hunts have no shame, no morals, no conscience, and absolutely no respect for the citizens of our country,” he told supporters at a rally in Ohio Saturday in a retooled stump speech. “Our cruel and vindictive political class is not just coming after me. They’re coming after you, through me.”
In other ways, Trump has been forced to adjust, devoting a growing share of political contributions to pay attorney fees. The summer’s planning for a fall presidential campaign announcement have been put on pause, according to two people familiar with the plans, who like some others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Two Trump advisers said the former president was surprised and angry at the lawsuit from New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) on Wednesday, and that her “attacks,” in the words of one of them, anger him more than other investigations. Trump has accused James, who is Black, of being “racist,” without explaining how.
Trump now has more than a dozen lawyers working on various probes against him, with financial support for their efforts coming from both the Republican National Committee and his political committee, Save America. There are separate sets of lawyers for each of the investigations. His political team has tried to cheer him up at times with positive tweets and other conservative news articles that he shares through his PAC’s website.
“He doesn’t seem to have a breaking point,” one of these people said. “He just rolls on and acts like all these things, at least to everyone around him, aren’t slowing him down.”
Among Trump’s advisers, the Jan. 6 investigation from the Justice Department and the Mar-a-Lago document probe are widely viewed as the most wide-ranging and perilous to Trump and his inner circle. But some advisers fear the biggest political damage could be done by James, as his wealth has long been part of his mystique to Republican voters, they say.
Trump himself has paid close attention to that probe, two advisers said. And the Georgia investigation is viewed as something of a wild card with an aggressive prosecutor.
One recent visitor to Trump’s club said he did not focus on the classified documents seized from him — other than to say it was a “witch hunt, overblown and they’re not a problem.” He continues to argue that he won the 2020 election, which he lost to President Biden.
For the moment, there is little sign that the legal attacks have shifted Trump’s political standing and some advisers argue that they will only strengthen him among his core supporters. His favorability rating among the American people, as measured by averages of public polling, remains effectively unchanged over the last 18 months, at about 43 percent. In late August, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) predicted there would be “riots in the streets” if Trump is prosecuted.
“If the media, if the Democrats, if the New York attorney general and the Department of Justice just left this guy alone, you would see his numbers among Republicans fade, I guarantee it,” said one former Trump White House adviser who remains bullish on Trump’s prospects in a Republican nomination fight. “He is constantly getting attacked by these people, who our voters hate. That is what cleaves the base to him.”
Democrats nonetheless believe the controversies, coming less than seven weeks before the midterm elections, have helped them to make the argument to moderate Republicans and independent voters that the current crop of Republican candidates, who have not distanced themselves from Trump, are more extreme than past GOP opponents.
“The impact that the Mar-a-Lago issue has had is it’s raised the stakes on the unquestioning fealty of Republicans to Trump,” Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said. “So I don’t think they are necessarily litigating the details of Trump’s possession of super-classified documents, but voters are litigating the blind loyalty that Republicans have to President Trump and that is part of what people think about when they think about MAGA Republicans.”
Trump has lived his life under legal jeopardy, a regular instigator and defendant in civil litigation, dating back to a 1973 Justice Department civil rights claim for housing discrimination against his family real estate business that ended in a consent decree. Years later, he found himself back in court over his alleged hiring and underpayment of undocumented Polish workers for his first major Manhattan building project, Trump Tower, in 1980.
Under oath in a 2012 deposition about the alleged fraud at a real estate seminar called Trump University — a case he later settled for $25 million — Trump said he had testified in over 100 court hearings and given over 100 depositions.
“Normal course of business, unfortunately,” he explained.
Trump’s time in the White House earned him a brief reprieve, as judges debated whether he could be held accountable in civil matters while in office. Justice Department precedent, meanwhile, protected him from criminal charges while in office. Congress, however, kept up the pressure, with the House impeaching him twice.
D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine sued Trump two days after he left office for abusing nonprofit funds to enrich himself by overpaying his own hotel during his 2016 inauguration. He settled that case for $750,000 more than a year later, without admitting guilt. Months after leaving office, he sat for hours of deposition in a civil case about claims that Trump’s personal security assaulted protesters in 2015 outside his Manhattan office.
The Justice Department’s sprawling investigation of the role of Trump and his aides in efforts to overturn the 2020 election results remains in the early stages, with a new round of broad subpoenas issued earlier this month. Prosecutors are seeking vast amounts of information and communications with more than 100 people about the origin, fundraising and motives of the effort to block Biden from being certified as president — including the slates of fake electors and the riot at the U.S. Capitol.
“It looks like a multipronged fraud and obstruction investigation,” former federal prosecutor Jim Walden told The Post last week. “It strikes me that they’re going after a very, very large group of people, and my guess is they are going to make all of the charging decisions toward the end.”
The department’s criminal investigation into the potential mishandling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago won an important victory on Wednesday night, when a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit overturned parts of a lower court judge’s ruling and said the FBI may once again have access to the classified documents they seized from Trump’s Florida residence and private club on Aug. 8.
In that case, Trump and his aides could be in considerable legal peril, according to experts. That’s because Trump’s lawyers told the Justice Department they had returned all documents with classified markings in response to a subpoena — only to have FBI agents recover about 100 more classified documents during their court-authorized search.
The Justice Department, from Attorney General Merrick Garland on down, has repeatedly said that no one is above the law. But legal experts say prosecutors may still feel that they need a serious, can’t-miss case to file criminal charges against a former commander in chief.
If authorities were to seek an indictment against Trump — or any former president — at either the state or federal level, these experts say, there would need to be compelling evidence that a crime had been committed. In addition, the alleged crime would have to be quite serious.
“I don’t imagine you would charge any former president with a relatively minor crime,” Chuck Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney and senior FBI official, told The Post in August.
James, the New York attorney general who has the authority to investigate instances of business-related fraud in the state, filed a 222-page lawsuit this week against Trump, three of his adult children, his longtime top financial officer Allen Weisselberg and his comptroller Jeffrey McConney for allegedly engaging in a systematic effort to deceive lenders, insurance companies and tax authorities by tinkering with asset values to gain financial advantages under false pretenses.
The lawsuit has the potential to effectively shut down the Trump Organization’s business operations in the state by removing its leadership and preventing it from obtaining new loans or acquiring new real estate. However, Trump’s current ownership of property and ground leases cannot be revoked, and he would still have the ability to sell those valuable assets. James is seeking to recover $250 million in what she alleges are ill-gotten gains stemming from the alleged fraud.
In Georgia, the Fulton County district attorney has launched her own criminal investigation into efforts by Trump and his supporters to overturn the election results. Investigators have identified more than 100 people of interest in that probe, and are presenting witnesses to a special grand jury.
Trump’s calls to Georgia officials after the election are one focus of the investigation, along with testimony Trump allies gave to state lawmakers in December 2020 and the fake-elector scheme from that same month. Investigators are also looking at an election systems breach in Coffee County, Ga., where Trump campaign lawyers worked with a forensic data firm to obtain voter data. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis (D) said in September that a decision on whether to file any charges is still months away.
In a separate legal maneuver, a New Mexico district judge recently disqualified Couy Griffin, a county commissioner from the ballot, after he had been found guilty of illegally entering U.S. Capitol grounds during the Jan. 6 protests. The judge found that this made him ineligible to hold public office.
“There is enough evidence in the public record already that election officials and state and federal courts will need to ask themselves if Donald Trump is qualified, under the evidence produced by the Jan. 6 Committee, under the 14th Amendment, Section 3,” said Norm Eisen, a former ethics adviser to President Barack Obama, referring to a section of the Constitution forbidding anyone who “engaged in insurrection” to hold public office.
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The Washington Post’s Shayna Jacobs in New York, Matthew Brown in Atlanta and Tom Hamburger in Washington contributed to this report.