Donald Trump speaks at a rally
When Donald Trump formally declares his 2024 candidacy, he won’t just be running for another term in the White House. He’ll be running away from legal troubles, possible criminal charges, and even the specter of prison time.
In recent months, Trump has made clear to associates that the legal protections of occupying the Oval Office are front-of-mind for him, four people with knowledge of the situation tell Rolling Stone.
Trump has “spoken about how when you are the president of the United States, it is tough for politically motivated prosecutors to ‘get to you,” says one of the sources, who has discussed the issue with Trump this summer. “He says when [not if] he is president again, a new Republican administration will put a stop to the [Justice Department] investigation that he views as the Biden administration working to hit him with criminal charges — or even put him and his people in prison.”
Presidential immunity and picking his own attorney general aren’t Trump’s only reasons for running again. And as he works on another run, Trump is in a tug-of-war with leaders and operatives of his own party about when to announce, according to multiple people with knowledge of the matter.
The former president is motivated to announce early — even before Election Day 2022 — in the hopes of clearing the field of primary rivals. But GOP leaders, including some of Trump’s closest advisors, don’t want him to declare his intentions until after the midterm elections. The GOP wants to keep voters focused on President Joe Biden, rather than transforming the contest into a referendum on Trump. In recent months, Trump has reluctantly agreed to hold off, only to return shortly thereafter with threats to make an early announcement, either out of self-interest, spite, or some combination of the two.
But as Trump talks about running, the four sources say, he’s leaving confidants with the impression that, as his criminal exposure has increased, so has his focus on the legal protections of the executive branch.
It’s not just liberal wish-casters or Trump critics who are acknowledging the former president’s legal jeopardy. Trump’s teams of lawyers and former senior administration officials speak about it commonly. “I do think criminal prosecutions are possible…for Trump and [former White House chief of staff Mark] Meadows certainly,” Ty Cobb, a former top lawyer in Trump’s White House, bluntly told Rolling Stone late last month.
Trump himself seems to acknowledge potential problems. He “said something like, ‘[prosecutors] couldn’t get away with this while I was president,’” another one of the four sources recalls. “It was during a larger discussion about the investigations, other possible 2024 [primary] candidates, and what people were saying about the Jan. 6 hearings … He went on for a couple minutes about how ‘some very corrupt’ people want to ‘put me in jail.’”
The powers of the presidency would offer a welcome pause to the various civil suits and criminal investigations now hanging over Trump. It’s unclear whether the Justice Department will charge Trump in connection with fomenting the January 6 insurrection, but winning the White House would be extremely helpful to him. Department policy forbids the prosecution of a sitting president, effectively insulating Trump from any federal charges for another four years.
Attorney General Merrick Garland
Jim Lo Scalzo/AFP/Getty Images
The law is less clear on whether a president can face prosecution from states while in office, but any attempt to put Trump on trial in a state case would likely be litigated in the Supreme Court. Former New York City district attorney Cyrus Vance’s efforts to subpoena Trump’s tax returns landed before the high court in 2020.
At the state level, Trump faces two criminal investigations. In Manhattan, district attorney Alvin Bragg empaneled a grand jury to investigate whether the former president committed fraud by allegedly lying about the value of his assets in financial statements. The grand jury has since expired, however, and there are few indications that Bragg intends to bring charges. In Georgia, prosecutors in Fulton County are investigating whether Trump illegally interfered in the counting of votes by pressuring Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” votes for him after the election. Just this month, Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis has subpoenaed Trump allies Rudy Giuliani and Sen. Lindsay Graham and sent letters to pro-Trump Georgia state senators warning they could be prosecuted as part of the case.
Trump faces a slew of lawsuits, both for his conduct while in office and before. In previous cases Trump’s attorneys have claimed that the office of the president makes him immune to civil suits while sitting. That was Trump’s defense in a since-dismissed lawsuit by former Apprentice contestant Summer Zervos.
In the 1990s, Paula Jones’ suit against then-President Clinton established that presidents do not enjoy absolute immunity. But the Zervos suit against Trump dragged on for five years before she dropped it. The case demonstrated that the presidency can help delay civil suits, even if it’s not an insurmountable obstacle.
Trump’s most recent legal headaches stem from his role in inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection. Capitol and Washington, D.C. Metropolitan police officers have sued Trump over the physical and emotional damages they suffered during the rioting. The former president also faces two separate suits from Democratic members of Congress. The suits accuse the president of violating their civil rights by conspiring with extremist groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers to prevent the count of electoral votes.
Pro-Trump Rioters attack Capitol Police on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C.
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
E. Jean Carroll is still pursuing a case against Trump for defamation. She has accused Trump of raping her in a store in the mid 1990s and is suing over his 2019 claim that Carroll was “totally lying.” The Justice Department, under both Trump and Biden, has claimed that Trump is immune from the suit because he was “acting within the scope of his office” when he made the claims. A federal appeals court is currently weighing the department’s arguments.
And in New York, attorney general Letitia James is pursuing a civil investigation into whether the Trump Organization lied about the value of its assets.
The suits add to mounting pressure on Trumpworld as the Jan. 6 committee and Justice Department investigations have heated up. A number of Trump aides have been pulled into a federal grand jury investigation into the effort to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory. The investigation has yielded search warrants served on Trump campaign attorney John Eastman and Justice Department and former acting assistant attorney general Jeffrey Clark.
In the face of the investigations, many in Trumpworld have hoped that former aides could face prosecution for the efforts to overturn the election instead of the former president. In particular, Trump associates have tried to distance him from Eastman. And as Rolling Stone reported last week Trump’s legal advisors also view former chief of staff Mark Meadows as a potential fall guy for the former president’s post-election activities.