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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A looming indictment, for a third time

By German López

With a third indictment of former President Donald Trump now seeming quite likely — this one involving his attempts to remain in power after losing the 2020 election — there are three big questions about the case.

One, what would be the specifics of such an indictment? Two, would an indictment include significant new evidence, or focus on information that’s already known? Three, what are the chances that Trump may one day face prison time?

1. The specifics

On Tuesday, Trump said he received a letter confirming he was a target in the federal investigation into his attempts to stay in power after the 2020 election, including any role in inciting the Jan. 6 attacks. Such a letter is typically a sign of an imminent indictment, Charlie Savage wrote in The New York Times. Any charges will require months to work through the legal system.

On what grounds could Trump be charged? Several possibilities exist: his attempts to obstruct Congress’ Jan. 6, 2021, proceedings; possible fraud related to fundraising; and efforts to recruit so-called fake electors from states he narrowly lost. (Hours after Trump revealed the letter, Michigan authorities charged 16 people in the fake elector scheme.)

Only a little is known about where prosecutors are focusing, and that information comes from the letter to Trump. It cited statutes that could be applied in a prosecution, including a potential charge of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and a broad charge related to a violation of rights.

2. New information?

Without seeing the evidence, experts are unsure how strong the case against Trump is. In the classified documents inquiry, investigators uncovered new evidence, including photos of documents in a bathroom at Trump’s Florida home and Trump suggesting in a recording that he knew he wasn’t supposed to have the papers. So far, the public evidence around Trump’s attempts to cling to power is less explicit.

Consider Trump’s involvement in the Jan. 6 riots: He made suggestive comments, including earlier that day at a rally in Washington. But none of them were explicit orders for an attack, and he eventually encouraged his supporters who had breached the Capitol to disperse.

Trump “is often both all over the place and yet somewhat careful not to cross certain lines,” Maggie Haberman, who covers Trump for the Times, has said. “At his rally at the Ellipse on Jan. 6, he told people to go ‘peacefully and patriotically’ but also directed them to the Capitol with apocalyptic language about the election. Frequently, people around him understand the implications of words, even when he’s not being direct.”

If investigators do have evidence that more directly links Trump to any potential charges, it will be revealed in the coming days or weeks if an indictment is filed and made public.

3. The prison possibility

In addition to this case, Trump already faces state charges in New York of falsifying business records to cover up potential sex scandals before the 2016 election as well as federal charges in the classified documents case. And Trump may face separate state charges in Georgia over his attempts to stay in power; a local prosecutor is expected to announce an indictment decision soon.

Any of these cases could lead to a conviction and possible prison time. Or Trump could beat the charges in court.

There is one other possibility that his advisers have raised: He could win the 2024 election, potentially making it too difficult to imprison him or allowing him to use the powers of the presidency to drop the federal investigations and charges.

“When he was indicted in the documents investigation, his advisers were blunt that in their view, he needs to win the election as a defense against possible jail time,” Haberman wrote Tuesday. “That only increases with an indictment related to Jan. 6 at the federal level.”

The circumstances put Trump’s presidential campaign in a different light. He is not running, as politicians typically do, solely to push a policy agenda, establish his legacy or gain power. He is running for self-preservation, too.

The U.S. has never confronted this scenario. Experts are divided over whether and how Trump could act as president if he were sentenced to prison. No one knows for certain how America’s political and criminal justice systems would handle that outcome. As Jessica Levinson, an election law expert, told the Times, “I don’t think that the Framers ever thought we were going to be in this situation.”

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