Donald Trump's biggest legal threats

It's not just Jack Smith's indictments — the former president is facing a host of separate challenges from around the country

Donald Trump
(Image credit: Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

In late March, following years of investigations and allegations, Donald Trump became the first former president in United States history to be criminally indicted, with Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg charging the once-and-potentially-future president with dozens of felony counts for falsifying business records related to alleged hush money payments concealing his alleged affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels.

The charges, which Trump has steadfastly denied, are not simply a historic first. They are also the tip of a larger iceberg of legal peril for the former president as he mounts another bid for the White House in 2024. Since March, Trump has not only been found liable in the assault of longtime Elle magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll, but faces two separate federal indictments for his role in working to subvert the results of the 2020 presidential election, as well as improperly storing classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate. In each instance, Trump has publicly maintained his innocence.

These cases have reopened an ongoing debate over Trump's many vulnerabilities — both legal and electoral — for the 2024 presidential election. At the same time, Trump has already begun using his legal peril as a springboard for a renewed fundraising push to supporters, even as rivals and detractors seize upon his potentially criminal vulnerability as the 2024 campaign begins to intensify.

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While Trump has deftly avoided (and in some cases even utilized) lawsuits and threats of criminal action for his own purposes in the past, he is now for the first time in his career facing a very real possibility of being found both guilty and liable for a host of allegations: some related, some disparate, and all serious.

These are the major judicial challenges currently threatening Donald Trump:

Federal investigation into classified documents

In June, Justice Department Special Counsel Jack Smith charged Donald Trump with 37 felony counts relating to his alleged mishandling of a tranche of highly classified documents found at the former president's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, following a dramatic FBI raid on the property in August 2022. Per Smith's indictment, Trump was "not authorized to possess or retain those classified documents," nor was the property an "authorized location for the storage, possession, review, display or discussion of classified documents." The bulk of the charges against Trump are for "willful retention of national defense information," although he has also been charged with making false statements to investigators, as well as conspiring to obstruct justice. In late June, Smith filed a superseding indictment against Trump with several additional charges, including allegations that Trump had worked to destroy evidence in the case. Trump's trial, to be presided over by Florida Judge Aileen Cannon, is scheduled to begin on March 20, 2024, in the thick of the GOP primary season.

Federal investigation into election interference and Jan. 6

On August 1, Smith announced a second slate of charges against Trump for his role in working to subvert the results of the 2020 presidential election, and the violent insurrection that ensued at the Capitol complex on Jan. 6, 2021. The 45-page indictment, issued in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, charges Trump with four counts of conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, obstruction of justice, and witness tampering. In a speech delivered shortly after the indictment was made public, Smith described Trump's attempt to disrupt a "bedrock function of the U.S. government" as having been knowingly "fueled by lies."

While no court date for the trial has been set yet, Trump's election interference case is being presided over by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is widely regarded as one of the district's most strict sentencers for convicted Jan. 6 defendants.

2020 election subversion in Georgia

After more than a year of investigating alleged efforts by Trump and his allies to manipulate and overturn his 2020 electoral loss in the state of Georgia, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis handed up what is perhaps the most acute legal threat the former president faces today — a 97-page indictment detailing 13 felony criminal counts against Trump and dozens more for his 17 co-conspirators, including Rudy Giuliani and Mark Meadows. At its core, the Georgia indictment alleges that Trump and others engaged in a "criminal enterprise" to subvert the 2020 election in violation of the state's expansive Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. It cites a number of well-publicized incidents, including Trump's personal call to Georgia's Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger demanding he "find" more than 11,000 votes in Trump's favor, as well as other acts like the breaching of voting machines and endorsement of false electoral college votes.

Because the charges brought against Trump are violations of state, rather than federal, law, the former president has little opportunity for a potential pardon should he ultimately be convicted. He has maintained his innocence throughout, explaining at a brief press conference following his surrender at the Fulton County Jail that he had "every single right" to challenge the 2020 election, and had done "nothing wrong at all," per NBC News.

Willis has indicated she wants the trial to begin as soon as possible, proposing a March 4, 2024 start date. However, given the complexity of the case, the ongoing 2024 election schedule, and the former president's penchant for judicial delay tactics, it is likely that the actual start date could come much later. No matter when the case does ultimately go to trial, it could differ from Trump's other legal woes in one key way: It may be the only one televised, NBC News reported.

Author E. Jean Carroll's lawsuits over alleged 1990s rape

This past May, federal jurors in Manhattan found Trump liable for sexual abuse against former Elle magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll, who alleged the former president raped her in a Bergdorf Goodman's department store dressing room in the mid-1990s. Trump was ordered to pay $5 million in damages, although he was cleared of the more serious allegations of rape, based on the limited legal standard of the act set forth by presiding Judge Lewis Kaplan. Kaplan later clarified that the "finding that Ms. Carroll failed to prove that she was 'raped' within the meaning of the New York Penal Law does not mean that she failed to prove that Mr. Trump 'raped' her as many people commonly understand the word 'rape,'" noting that the "jury found that Mr. Trump in fact did exactly that."

Trump had long denied the allegations, calling Carroll "not my type" in 2019, and then a "hoax" and "con job" three years later, prompting a separate, and currently ongoing, federal defamation suit. Following her victory in Manhattan, and Trump's subsequent comments that she was a "whack job" whom he'd never met, Carroll was granted permission to amend that suit to include those latest remarks when that case goes to trial in January.

The Stormy Daniels hush money payments

There's an irony of sorts to the fact that Trump's first criminal indictment is perhaps also his most mundane; he stands accused of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, related to his having paid $130,000 to adult film star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential election in exchange for her silence on their alleged sexual relationship. Prosecutors are also exploring whether there were similar payments made to other paramours. In particular, The New York Times reported, prosecutors under Bragg are looking into whether the then-candidate "falsely accounted" for that money when he reimbursed his former attorney Michael Cohen, who facilitated the transaction.

Moreover, because the alleged hush money payment occurred within the context of the 2016 election, prosecutors are examining whether election laws were broken, as well. Separately, although relatedly, Daniels was ordered to pay Trump more than $100,000 for legal fees in April, after she unsuccessfully sued him for defamation in 2018, according to NPR.

This July, a federal judge in New York denied Trump's request to transfer the criminal case to federal court, writing that "Trump has failed to show that the conduct charged by the indictment is for or relating to any act performed by or for the president under color of the official acts of a president." The case will go to trial in late March 2024.

Updated Sept. 5, 2023: This article has been updated throughout.

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