The third indictment against Donald Trump raises the legal dispute between the United States and its former president to a new level. While Trump cries foul play, drawing shameful comparisons with Nazi persecution 1930s Germany, the consequences of the trial can't be predicted.
Fifteen months. That's how much time is left for Jack Smith, special investigator of the U.S. Department of Justice, if he wants to conclude the "swift trial" against Donald Trump before the next U.S. election. On Nov. 5, 2024, Trump wants to become the U.S. President again, assuming he emerges victorious.
With the latest indictment against him, it is clear that the road to that date will pose unprecedented challenges to U.S. democracy and its institutions.
Trump has been charged with four counts in a U.S. federal court in Washington: conspiracy to defraud the United States, obstruction of an official proceeding (Joe Biden's election), and general conspiracy against the law, among others.
The indictment, which will be heard for the first time this Thursday, brings a new level of complexity to the legal dispute between the U.S. and its former president. The indictments admitted so far have been far less spectacular: one of them is also being negotiated at the federal level, but deals exclusively with Trump's handling of classified documents. A criminal case at the New York state level is primarily directed against the "Trump Organization" company. In addition, Trump faces another indictment at the state level for alleged election fraud in Georgia. The 77-year-old repeatedly claimed his innocence in all cases.
In addition to the complex legal level, there is also the political level, which is becoming increasingly important. Trump and his campaign team are using the legal disputes to circulate conspiracy stories of the so-called Deep State against him. A spokesman for the team responded to the latest indictment by comparing the U.S. judiciary to Hitler's Germany. The lawless manner in which the ex-president and his supporters are being prosecuted is "reminiscent of 1930s Nazi Germany, the former Soviet Union and other authoritarian, dictatorial regimes," the statement said.
Trump himself had hinted at the lawsuit a few hours in advance, disparaging Special Prosecutor Smith as "deranged" and accusing him of trying to obstruct the 2024 presidential election. And for all the nonsense — it needs to be written so clearly — that Trump is doing on his own behalf, he does have a point.
Of course, there are also political interests related to impeachment. What interests are being pursued by the executive and judicial authorities in Washington who may well regard the storming of the Capitol, as well as Trump's attacks on the electoral system, as an attack on their system?
What role, for example, does the Supreme Court, occupied by Trump to his liking, play? At the end of June, the judges disagreed with the Independent State Legislature Theory. Not unanimously, however, but with 6:3 judges voting against the controversial election law theory, which was also advocated by Trump supporters.
What would be the outcome of the Supreme Court's decision on a conviction of an (ex-)president?
Someone who defies the Constitution should never be president.
By contrast, the statements of Trump's rivals in the Republican primary campaign are more transparent. His ex-vice Mike Pence — who opposed him when he stormed the Capitol in January 2021 — apparently sees the impeachment as an opportunity to take on Trump directly. "Someone who defies the Constitution should never be president," he wrote in a statement.
April 4, 2023, New York, USA: People hold banners and chant outside Manhattan Criminal Court
Gina M Randazzo/ZUMA
Trump's biggest competitor
Before that, Pence, who is far behind in polls, had long avoided commenting directly on Trump. But by the time he testified as a witness at the "grand jury" hearing that voted in favor of Trump's indictment, it was clear what political capital Pence sees in the proceedings. If Pence now also testifies directly against Trump in the main trial, this will at least increase the political significance of the court case.
Trump's current biggest competitor, Ron DeSantis, took a different approach. Without directly taking Trump's side, the Republican governor of Florida clearly criticized the work of federal authorities. "As President, I will put an end to the weaponization of government, replace the FBI director and ensure a uniform standard of justice for all Americans," he said. DeSantis thus firmly continues on Trump's path of disparaging the Washington establishment as a "swamp."
Meanwhile, the Trump camp is hinting at its strategy for the coming weeks.
Kari Lake, who was considered the runner-up, called on the other Republican candidates to suspend their election campaigns in order to support Trump. Even though this will certainly not happen (cue: Pence) it is already clear on the evening of the decision how deeply divided the USA is.
Trump himself, according to most political observers from both camps, will continue to use the legal battle for his election campaign. After all, neither the federal indictment on the classified documents nor the new one on the 2020 election will prevent him from continuing to make appearances, collect donations or return to the White House if he wins.
What happens next?
What is controversial, however, is what will happen if Trump is convicted before he wins the election.
Quite a few experts in the U.S. see no legal option to prevent Trump from taking the oath of office even in the event of a guilty verdict and a prison sentence. Whereas there are also federal laws that could theoretically be interpreted against Trump, such as the one against "rebellion or insurrection" (18 U.S. Code § 2383).
It states that "Whoever incites, sets on foot, assists, or engages in any rebellion or insurrection against the authority of the United States or the laws thereof, or gives aid or comfort thereto, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States."
It is unclear in theoretical terms whether the proceedings against Trump could even be concluded in time.
This process will set a precedent, and not only in court.
In the end, there are three interdependent levels that will determine the months until November 2024: the formal legal level, the political level and, quite simply, the time level. For example, it is currently unclear in purely theoretical terms whether the proceedings against Trump could even be concluded in time. Elections do notstick to court dates.