Trump investigations set to accelerate in coming weeks: Where the inquiries stand
- Donald Trump faces a busy legal season with investigations in Washington, New York and Georgia.
- The probes involve Trump's financial practices and his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
- The investigations are heating up as Trump campaigns for supporters in Republican primaries.
WASHINGTON – Two months ago, it looked like Donald Trump had – yet again– dodged a potentially deadly political bullet: a possible indictment in New York.
A pair of prosecutors heading a criminal fraud investigation in Manhattan abruptly resigned, leaving the case in limbo and inspiring celebrations by Trump and allies, albeit short-lived.
But just weeks later, more investigations are revving back up:
- The New York attorney general is continuing to develop a civil case over Trump's financial practices. A state judge Monday held Trump in contempt of court for failing to turn over documents requested by investigators;
- A district attorney in Georgia is planning to call dozens of witnesses before a special grand jury investigating the then-president's attempts to overturn the 2020 election in the Peach State;
- In Washington, a special House investigating committee is planning public hearings and mulling a criminal referral to the Justice Department linking Trump to the Jan. 6 insurrection and the bid to void President Joe Biden's victory in 2020.
Any of the cases percolating in Washington, Georgia and New York could put Trump in unprecedented legal peril as he tries to help Republicans win control of Congress this year and considers another presidential run in 2024 – and voices repeated concern about the possibility he will be the first ex-president to be hauled into court.
The Justice Department is already investigating – and prosecuting – people involved in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and possible links to Trump as he fought to stay in office despite the vote against him.
"It's absolutely clear that they knew what they were doing was wrong, they knew that it was unlawful, and they did it anyway," said Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., a member of the Jan. 6 committee, speaking this month on CNN.
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Back in January, as the New York indictment loomed, Trump told supporters in Texas that "they want to put me in jail!"
If he is indeed formally charged, Trump asked his more aggressive supporters to stage "the biggest protest we have ever had … in Washington, D.C, in New York, in Atlanta and elsewhere."
'A legal crescendo'
Charges against an ex-president would be historic, political and legal analysts said, and the political fallout is impossible to predict.
"The pursuit of Trump is very different," said Paul Rosenzweig, who worked with the Whitewater independent counsel investigation of President Bill Clinton. "But, then again, his conduct in office was pretty much different, too."
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., a former federal prosecutor who has sued Trump over Jan. 6, said it would be unprecedented to bring formal charges against an ex-president. But these are unprecedented times; if the evidence is there, he said, Trump should have to face a judge and jury just like anyone else.
"Before Donald Trump, no president had ever led an insurrection against the United States," Swalwell said in a telephone interview. "He changed everything."
Swalwell, who has created a political action committee to help Democrats campaign on efforts to protect democracy, said the nation is "building up to a legal crescendo," and Trump's legal fate will be a big issue in the fall elections.
"Trump is absolutely on the ballot," Swalwell said. "There is no way around it."
The Georgia case
Trump will stump for his endorsed candidates in a series of Republican primaries scheduled for May – the same month that prosecutors in Georgia plan to amp up their investigation of Trump.
A criminal investigation examining election interference by the former president enters a new phase next month when a special grand jury is formally empaneled to weigh evidence and testimony from more than two dozen witnesses.
The seating of the special panel, approved earlier this year by a local judge, is set to begin May 2. The assistance was sought by Atlanta-area District Attorney Fani Willis, who cited the need for additional authority to compel witnesses to cooperate with authorities.
Since Willis announced the local inquiry last year, investigators have interviewed about 50 witnesses, Willis spokesman Jeff DiSantis told USA TODAY. Another 30 could require grand jury subpoenas, while 60 others may be sought for additional voluntary interviews, he said.
The witness breakdown was first reported earlier this week by the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Yet Wills had signaled in February in an interview with USA TODAY that the inquiry had significantly expanded and the pace of investigation was set to accelerate.
"There is a significant enough number of people, who when we're calling ... politely to say we'd like an opportunity to sit down and talk to you about matters related to this (investigation), refrained from wanting to do that. And some even specifically requested subpoenas," Willis told USA TODAY in February.
Willis and DiSantis have declined to elaborate on who they planned to subpoena, including whether they would include former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows or other members of the former president's administration.
Referring to previous discussions with Trump’s lawyers, Willis said they "could rely on" a decision on possible charges by the end of this year.
Trump's phone tag
Last year, Willis disclosed that local prosecutors had launched a wide-ranging investigation of possible election fraud, false statements, conspiracy, oath of office violations, racketeering and violence associated with threats to the election process.
A major focus of the inquiry has been Trump's Jan. 2, 2021, telephone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, in which the former president urged the state official to tilt the 2020 statewide vote in his favor.
"So look, all I want to do is this: I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have. Because we won the state," Trump told Raffensperger, according to audio of that call.
Raffensperger is also on the Georgia ballot next month; he is being challenged by Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., who has Trump's backing.
Separately, Trump also urged a Georgia election investigator in a phone call in December to "find the fraud."
Willis also is examining a November 2021 call in which Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a prominent Trump ally, allegedly asked Raffensperger whether he had the authority to disqualify mail-in ballots from certain areas of the state.
Graham has denied making such a request.
On a related matter, Willis has said that local prosecutors would also be examining the submission of an alternate slate of electors by Republicans in Georgia, one of seven states in which officials allegedly sought to reverse Trump's defeat.
The Jan. 6 case
June may also mark the first in a planned series of public hearings from the select House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and Trump's responsibility.
The committee hopes to complete its work by the end of the year, and must decide whether to issue a criminal referral to the Department of Justice – a determination that Trump's attempts to overturn his election loss to Joe Biden amount to possible crimes.
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., one of two Republicans on the panel, said, "It’s absolutely clear that what President Trump was doing, what a number of people around him were doing, that they knew it was unlawful."
Trump says he was exercising his rights to protest the election and that the "unselect committee" is strictly political.
The New York cases
Developments in New York have been a good news/bad news situation for Trump.
While the New York district attorney's office criminal investigation of Trump's past financial dealings appears to be in an uncertain state, state Attorney General Letitia James appears to be moving forward with a potential civil case against the ex-president.
James' office had been working with the New York DA as part of joint investigation into whether Trump and his company fraudulently inflated the value of their real estate holdings to obtain loans and deflated those values at other times to get lower tax bills.
The civil fraud inquiry got a boost Monday, when New York Judge Arthur Engoron ruled Trump in contempt for failing to turn over documents sought by investigators, ordering the former president to pay fines of $10,000 per day until the information is provided.
Attorneys for Trump said they would appeal.
Trump has publicly expressed concern for James' case by sending a mocking Easter message to the state attorney general: "May she remain healthy despite the fact that she will continue to drive business out of New York while at the same time keeping crime, death, and destruction in New York!"
James office responded: "Like all Americans, Donald J. Trump is entitled to defend himself in court. However, this attorney general will not be bullied or intimidated by the former president."
The district attorney's investigation appeared to be on hold after the two top prosecutors resigned in February. One of them, Mark Pomerantz, told Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg that he should pursue a case because he believes Trump "is guilty of numerous felony violations" with respect to statements of his financial condition.
But earlier this month, Bragg sent out a statement claiming the Trump investigation is continuing. "While the law constrains me from commenting further at this time," he said, "I pledge that the Office will publicly state the conclusion of our investigation – whether we conclude our work without bringing charges, or move forward with an indictment."
That inspired a counter-blast from Trump, who again said he is "being treated extremely unfairly."
No Nixon or Clinton
Trump isn't the first ex-president to face potential legal problems – but there is no precedent for the volume and intensity of the investigations he still faces more than a year and a half after he left office.
President Richard Nixon faced the prospect of indictment after he resigned the presidency over Watergate in 1974. Successor Gerald Ford short-circuited that threat with a preemptive pardon. (Nixon was ensnared in civil litigation and testified in the trial of FBI officials charged with civil rights violations.)
Decades later, President Bill Clinton faced legal peril over his testimony in the investigation of his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky. But he cut a deal with Special Counsel Robert Ray to avoid indictment by acknowledging false testimony, paying fines and surrendering his law license.
Trump is different. "It's most certainly unprecedented," said Barbara McQuade, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at the University of Michigan.
The investigation surrounding the Jan. 6 insurrection is probably the highest profile investigation.
There are risks to bringing charges against an ex-president; for one thing, Trump could win an acquittal, strengthening his claim that these investigations are all politically motivated.
McQuade, however, said that "to allow him to escape accountability would be worse," and might encourage future presidents and other lawmakers "to try and do the same things in the future."
'A very difficult situation'
Other observers said the danger is the perception that governments are targeting Trump for political reasons if the cases are seen as weak.
Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University Law School, said prosecution of Trump could lead to a world in which parties seek to put their opponents in jail for any reason.
"There is a danger in stretching the criminal code," Turley said.
Others stress that no one is above the law. Should prosecutors flinch about charging Trump with a crime, millions could lose faith in the system's ability to hold powerful people accountable.
There will be protests regardless of whether Trump is charged or not, said Jennifer Mercieca, an historian of political rhetoric who teaches at Texas A&M University.
"If he’s charged, his supporters will lose even more faith in those processes," she said. "If he’s not charged then Democrats will lose faith in those processes. Our nation is in a very difficult situation, brought on by Trump’s Big Lie and his failure to accept the election results."