Aug 17, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Why Trump's prosecutions are happening all at once

Illustration of Donald' Trump peeking from a pile of gavels.

Photo illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios. Photo: Jeff Swenson/Getty Images

Four indictments in four months. And most of the alleged crimes happened two-plus years ago.

Why it matters: Democrats want to know why it took so long. Republicans are suspicious: Why did prosecutors "wait" until the 2024 campaign was heating up, and former President Trump was the runaway (early) favorite for the Republican nomination?

The big picture: These investigations were all happening in separate orbits. Now they've collided in the mind-blowing spectacle of a quadruply indicted former president — who'll spend the next year juggling constant court dates with a campaign to get his old job back.

Here's how (and why) it took so long, as pieced together from public reporting, court documents and the obvious sensitivities surrounding the historic prosecution of a former president.

State of play: The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel has long held that sitting presidents cannot be indicted, effectively granting Trump immunity while he was in the White House.

  • Trump didn't face consequences in 2018 when he was named "Individual 1" in the case against his former fixer Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty to paying hush money to women who allegedly had affairs with Trump.
  • Former special counsel Robert Mueller also cited the OLC opinion when he declined to indict Trump in 2019, despite finding evidence that the then-president may have obstructed justice in the Russia investigation.

Between the lines: The OLC opinion does not prevent ex-presidents from being prosecuted for crimes they're accused of committing while in office — such as Trump's alleged hush money payments or his scheme to overturn the 2020 election.

  • Well aware of his legal exposure, given that the FBI had executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago in August 2022, Trump launched his 2024 campaign last Nov. 16 — far earlier than any of his GOP rivals and nearly two years before the election. That move set up Trump's often-repeated claim that he was being targeted by Democrats because he was a presidential candidate.
  • Three days later, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed special counsel Jack Smith to take over the investigations into Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his handling of classified documents.

Zoom in: Major criminal investigations — especially those involving powerful politicians — take serious time and resources, as the risk of botching a prosecution can undermine public faith in the justice system.

  • In Manhattan, District Attorney Alvin Bragg declined to seek a Trump indictment in spring 2022 after years of investigation by his predecessor — only to resurrect the probe and bring the hush-money charges this March. Republicans have assailed Bragg's indictment as overtly political, and polling suggests the public is also skeptical.
  • In Florida, Trump engaged in a year-long feud with the National Archives over government documents he had taken and allegedly tried to conceal. He was indicted in June after his attorney Evan Corcoran was forced to testify to a grand jury in March, providing key evidence about Trump's alleged obstruction.
  • In D.C., top DOJ and FBI officials resisted opening a probe into Trump's role in Jan. 6 for more than a year, wary of appearing partisan, the Washington Post reports. Even after Smith took over as special counsel, legal battles involving the testimony of key figures such as former Vice President Mike Pence led to further delays.
  • In Georgia, where Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis just unveiled a sprawling racketeering indictment against Trump and 18 allies, the sheer scale and complexity of the two-and-a-half year election interference probe helps explain the timing.

The big picture: Investigations into candidates have long had a fraught relationship with the political calendar, especially in a country with seemingly never-ending election cycles.

  • The Justice Department has an unwritten rule not to take investigative steps against candidates within 60 days of an election.
  • But it doesn't always work out that way: In October 2016, then-FBI director James Comey dropped the bombshell revelation that the FBI had reopened the investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server.
  • 11 days later, Trump was elected president.
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