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Donald Trump could be first US president elected behind bars

August 3, 2023

The former US President has been indicted for the third time, accused of serious crimes in the middle of election season. DW's Washington correspondent Ines Pohl answers the most important questions.

https://p.dw.com/p/4UkKt
Former US president Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event in Iowa on July 28, 2023
Image: Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo/picture alliance

What makes the third indictment against Trump different?

The latest indictment includes what are undoubtedly the most serious accusations against Donald Trump. The allegations revolve around his efforts to undermine the result of the 2020 presidential election, as well as to incite his supporters to storm the capitol in January 2021. The indictment also entails allegations that he conspired to defraud the United States and prevented voters from carrying out their constitutional rights.

The charges could have a major impact on the Republican candidate's reelection campaign, and they're significantly more serious than those in the past, which included indictments for falsifying business records in New York and withholding top-secret documents in Florida.

What impact will the indictment have on Trump's reelection campaign?

That depends on who you're referring to. There's a core of Trump supporters whose minds won't be changed by anything. In fact, Trump might even be able to shrewdly use the trial to raise money for his campaign. He could then, in turn, use those funds to help cover his legal fees. One  could even say that the indictment could actually help him among this group.

A lot of swing voters will be scared off by the indictment, as will Republican voters who are concerned that the proceedings could lower Trump's chances of defeating incumbent Joe Biden.

Trump charged with attempt to overturn 2020 election

What do the surveys say?

Donald Trump is by far the most popular Republican candidate. Everything indicates that he will win the party's primary and become the Republican challenger in the 2024 US presidential election.

According to a recent poll, Biden and Trump are tied in a hypothetical rematch at 43% support for their return to the White House. 

What do the indictments mean for Trump's candidacy?

The big question is whether or not the trials will be finished before the elections. The court dates are set for March and May of 2024, which is right around the time members of the two major parties vote for candidates in the primaries.

The proceedings will be highly complex, and Donald Trump will do everything in his power to delay the verdict until the elections are over.

How will Trump contest the allegations?

He'll probably rely on his right to free speech, which is very wide-reaching in the United States, but that's unlikely to help him much in this case.

It will be interesting to see if he's able to convince the judges that he himself was actually convinced that he had won the 2020 election because proving intent is essential in US criminal law. If he manages to do so, that would greatly increase his chances of winning in court.

Special counsel Jack Smith wears a suit and holds a briefcase while standing next to a podium during a press conference in which he announced a federal against Donald Trump.
Special counsel Jack Smith at a press conference on August 1 to announce another federal indictment against Donald Trump Image: Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo/picture alliance

Can Trump still become president if he's convicted?

The US Constitution lists very few conditions for the presidency. Candidates must be born US citizens, be at least 35 years old, and have lived in the United States for at least 14 years.

Beyond that, they can't have already been elected president twice before. So theoretically yes, Trump could still be elected president even if he was a convicted criminal serving time.

What would happen if Trump was elected while the trial was still ongoing?

That would likely cause a constitutional crisis. It would be unprecedented and would lead to a power struggle between the judiciary and the executive branches — meaning between the legal system and the government.

It would, however, be interesting to see how independent the courts really are, and whether or not Trump could manage to exert influence over the Department of Justice and the nation's criminal prosecution apparatus.

Can Trump pardon himself as president?

The general legal opinion is that it isn't possible, but in terms of constitutional law it isn't clear. The US Supreme Court would have to rule on the matter.

Can latest charges against Trump harm his presidential run?

This article was translated from German.

Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl Bureau head of DW's Washington Studio@inespohl