Former President Donald Trump’s year just got even busier.
On Tuesday, Trump was indicted by special counsel Jack Smith on four counts: conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government, conspiracy to violate people’s rights, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding and the actual obstruction of an official proceeding. That’s on top of two other sets of criminal charges filed against Trump in just the past five months — one from the Manhattan district attorney, and another from Smith’s team, involving separate federal charges. And this week’s indictment may not be the last of Trump’s legal troubles. Within the next few weeks, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis may ask a grand jury in Georgia to issue charges in a separate long-running investigation into efforts to overturn the result of the 2020 election, and Trump could be a target.
All of this means that by the end of the summer, Trump could be a defendant in four different criminal cases in four different courtrooms. That might not stop him from getting the Republican nomination — in fact, the first set of charges may actually have helped him. But even if they don’t damage him among his base, the indictments could hurt Trump simply by sucking up his time and attention. If he wants to avoid a conviction while running for president, he may need to spend a lot of energy dealing with these cases — leaving him with less bandwidth to campaign.
“Active client engagement is critical for success at trial,” said C. Melissa Owen, a criminal defense attorney in North Carolina who is active in the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “Trump is the best person to educate his lawyers about the circumstances in the cases, particularly his intent. Typically the more client involvement you have, the better the outcome.”
Juggling four different criminal cases is a daunting task for anyone, even if they’re not simultaneously trying to convince the American public to give them one of the most powerful jobs in the world. At first, most of the back-and-forth will happen out of the public eye: Before the trial begins, prosecutors will share information they’ve gathered with the defense team, and lawyers on both sides may ask the judge to make decisions about how the case will go — including, in some situations, whether it will get thrown out. Owen said that some clients like to be more involved in these early stages of the process than others. But defense lawyers need some level of input from their client, she added, because new information is becoming available and their understanding of that information needs to line up with how the client sees it.
And then there’s the trial itself — which could be lengthy, depending on the number of witnesses who are being called and the scope of the evidence that’s being presented. Trump’s status as a former president could throw a wrench into the process, too. “Jury selection alone is going to be really complicated,” Owen said. Each trial could end up taking weeks before a verdict is reached. It is possible that Trump will try to get out of being in the courtroom while the trials are happening — he routinely chooses not to show up in civil cases — but criminal defendants are generally expected to be present for every day of their trial. And even if Trump isn’t forced to be there, skipping all or part of a trial is a big risk for him. “It’s a really bad look not to be there,” Owen said. “Let’s just say it’s a bad signal to the jury, that the defendant thinks they have a better place to be.”
So it’s possible that the various court proceedings could end up sucking up months of Trump’s time during crucial points in the campaign. Right now, he’s first scheduled to go on trial in late March in New York, where he’s charged with falsifying business records as part of a payoff scheme for an adult-film actress during the 2016 campaign. That’s a couple of weeks after Super Tuesday — which means that while it’s possible that Trump will be the de facto GOP nominee by then, there’s also a chance that the Republican primary will still be grinding toward its conclusion.
The second trial, involving allegations that Trump illegally kept classified documents and obstructed efforts to get them back, is currently set for May. And if a similar pattern holds for the latest indictment — and any future indictment out of Fulton County — that means Trump could face additional trials in the summer of 2024, in two different places on the East Coast.
In some ways, that timing isn’t the worst for Trump, since the competitive portion of the Republican primary will likely be over by May. (If it’s not, the timing would be pretty terrible, since every state would be crucial in a down-to-the-wire primary campaign.) Trials throughout the summer wouldn’t interfere with the busiest part of a general election campaign, which heats up after Labor Day, although if he’s unlucky, one could coincide with the Republican National Convention, making for a very unfavorable split screen for the GOP. But if the cases are wrapped up by the fall without a conviction, Trump could be in an even stronger position in the home stretch of the campaign. “From his perspective, the best-case scenario is that he’s acquitted and then goes full-steam into the general election,” said Richard Briffault, a law professor at Columbia University who studies the political process.
But there’s also the possibility that Trump will be convicted in one or more cases after all of the votes have been cast in the GOP primary, which would likely ensure that he stays on the November ballot. In theory, the rules could be changed at the nominating convention to allow pledged delegates to vote for someone else, a long-shot gambit that Trump opponents unsuccessfully tried in 2016. Such a coup would be extremely difficult to pull off, though, and it likely wouldn’t go over well with the large chunk of GOP voters who believe that Trump should be able to serve as president even if he’s convicted of a serious crime (48 percent, according to a YouGov/Yahoo News poll conducted in July). Meanwhile, there’s no rule that says Trump can’t keep running if he’s convicted of a crime. He could even run from prison, although he’s unlikely to end up behind bars before the 2024 election. “Trump would immediately appeal any conviction, and that would take time,” Briffault said. “I don’t think we could count on an appeals court decision by November.”
Once the trials are over, though, the cases are unlikely to take up much more of Trump’s time even if he’s convicted, since, according to Owen, appeals require much less client input. So he’d be free to spend the last few months of the campaign on the trail, working to convince voters that he still deserves a second term. But moments from the trials might still come back to haunt him. “A criminal trial is not a popularity contest,” she said. “It’s a full examination of the most questionable decisions you’ve ever made. Which, needless to say, is the opposite of what any candidate wants during a presidential campaign.”