How Trump can run for US president despite legal troubles

WEB DESK: Donald Trump will appeal a ruling declaring him ineligible for primary ballots in Colorado, and his chances are good with the conservative-dominated US Supreme Court. But he faces several simultaneous legal battles.

COVID cases are on the rise, Taylor Swift released the best-selling album of the year and the fight between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is heating up. Sounds like 2020? That’s right. But it’s also where we are right now.

Though the Republicans haven’t yet formally decided who their candidate will be in the 2024 US presidential elections, it’s looking more and more likely that it will be former President Trump again. Nowhere does it say that the two terms each president is allowed must be consecutive?

Trump’s campaign suffered a setback on Monday, December 19, 2023, when the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that he wasn’t eligible to run for president in the state on the grounds that he had committed insurrection with his involvement in the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot. The judges pointed to the 14th amendment to the Constitution, which bans people who have sworn to protect the US Constitution and then engaged in insurrection from holding federal office again.

But the amendment is from the time of the Civil War, and it does not clearly refer to presidents. Trump’s campaign has already announced they’ll appeal, bringing the case to the US Supreme Court where conservative justices, three of whom were appointed by Trump himself, hold a 6-3 majority. Unless the case is resolved quickly, with the Supreme Court siding with the Colorado judges by a deadline in early January, Trump’s name will still appear on the state’s Republican primary ballot.

In nationwide polls Trump has been ahead of fellow Republican candidates like Florida governor Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador Nikki Haley, usually by a wide margin.

Impeachment no hindrance to presidential run

Donald Trump is the only US president to be impeached twice. In both cases, the House of Representatives charged Trump with articles of impeachment (in 2019 it was abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, in 2021 it was incitement of insurrection), but the Senate acquitted him.

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Only if the Senate, the higher chamber of Congress, convicts a president is he or she removed from office, a step that comes with the “disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honour, trust or profit under the United States” again, as stipulated in the Constitution.

So the double-impeachment is no legal hindrance. But what about Trump’s other troubles with the law?

From sexual assault to attempting to overturn 2020 election
The trials about to start against Trump in 2024 include civil fraud trials related to how Trump and his sons ran the family business, and a sexual assault and defamation trial. In the latter case, a jury had already found Trump liable for defaming a former columnist, with the judge concluding that Trump raped the woman and then denied it. The upcoming trial is supposed to determine how much Trump will have to pay the writer for defaming her.

There are also several cases against the former president related to his behavior after losing the 2020 election: A federal criminal trial in Miami in which Trump is charged with keeping classified government documents at his Mar-a-Lago home when he was no longer president, a racketeering trial in Georgia that has Trump and 18 other defendants charged with interfering with 2020 election results, and a US Department of Justice case in which Trump is charged with felonies in connection with his attempt to remain in power after losing in 2020.

No matter the outcome of these trials, though, Trump would not lose the eligibility to run for president. The US Constitution has no limits regarding criminal convictions for presidential hopefuls.

“There are several arguments over whether a presidential candidate who is indicted or is involved in an on-going legal case should still run for office,” Laura Merrifield Wilson, associate professor of political science at the University of Indianapolis, told DW. “But those are based on morals, judgement, and preferences, not overt laws or procedural barriers.”

If convicted of a felony in the Mar-a-Lago case, Trump would not be allowed to vote (in Florida, felons lose that right), but he could still run for the highest office in the country. Even if he were sent to prison, it would not interfere with his candidacy. What would happen if Trump won the presidential election while in prison, however, is unclear.

“We’re so far removed from anything that’s ever happened,” Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law expert at the University of California, Berkeley, told the New York Times. “It’s just guessing.”

Trump ‘bolstered’ by trials

Legally, the trials don’t hurt Trump’s presidential aspirations. But what about his appeal to voters?

Independents “may be turned off by a very salient conviction of Trump,” Christopher Federico, professor of political science and political psychology at the University of Minnesota, told DW. But “I don’t think any convictions are going to hurt him with his true base within the Republican party.”

Federico’s colleague and fellow political psychologist Howard Lavine also says the criminal charges haven’t hurt Trump with his supporters ― on the contrary.

“Each indictment seemed to bolster Trump’s potential vote-share,” Lavine told DW. “He’s framed this [to his voters] as ‘They’re trying to exact retribution against me as a proxy for exacting retribution against you.'”

Working with fear in a polarised US society

Both Federico and Lavine say that Trump has intuitively been very successful at connecting with his voter base ― whites without a college degree and conservative Black and Latino men. He makes them feel that he’s an outsider just like them and thus understands their anger and fear of being left behind by the elites in Washington.

Social reforms on gender issues and increased efforts for more equality and inclusion have fanned the flames of that fear, Lavine says.

“Being heterosexual isn’t any better than not being heterosexual, being a man doesn’t give you quite the status it once did, whites are decreasing as a proportion of the American population, and we will soon be a country in which Christians will be the minority,” Lavine said. “This is threatening the majority status of white Christian men. A lot of people feel like their social prestige is being decreased. And it appears Trump is able to laser-focus on these fears.”

His core supporter base, the experts say, want to feel represented and seen, and believe that Trump will fight to bring them back to their former glory ― to “make America great again.” Potential criminal convictions don’t matter for that.

“I don’t think Trump supporters would turn their back on him, period,” Wilson said. “They remain steadfast and loyal, even if not to the man, certainly to the mythological representation of what he stands for.”

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