Trump faces year of unprecedented legal challenges in 2024

Coming trials represent 'rare moment' to hold former US president accountable for alleged crimes

Donald Trump sits with his defence team in a Manhattan court in April 2023. AP
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People across the US will see history in the making when “unprecedented” court trials take place against former president Donald Trump as he makes another run at the White House.

In 2023, Mr Trump became the first sitting or former president to be indicted – racking up 91 felony counts in four criminal cases – which will make 2024 a busy year in courtrooms across several states.

“Donald Trump took unprecedented actions and that has led to unprecedented reactions,” Chris Geidner, editor and journalist at Law Dork, told The National.

Federal prosecutors allege that Mr Trump tried to overturn the 2020 election result, which he lost to Joe Biden, and that he also had a role in the deadly January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol in 2021.

“The case is unlike anything in the country's history,” Lindsay Chervinsky, senior fellow at the Centre for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Texas, told The National.

“The closest parallel is United States v Nixon, in that it is related to the president and the president's powers.

"But Nixon was not a criminal case and did not charge the former president with attempting to overthrow an election.”

Mr Trump is expected to face federal charges of conspiracy and obstruction at a Washington trial scheduled for March, pending any delays from pretrial challenges – some of which are taking place in the last days of 2023.

More cases, more cases

Federal prosecutors have also charged Mr Trump in Florida with holding government documents after his presidency ended and refusing to co-operate with authorities in returning them.

The trial has been set for May but could be postponed.

“In a normal world, we would be having this conversation about how the Florida federal case is the most important thing for voters to have resolution of, because it's about whether a president ignored federal laws surrounding protection of classified information,” Geidner said.

“And yet Trump has found a way to make that the less important case that we're looking at right now.”

In Georgia, the Republican presidential candidate is accused of leading a racketeering operation to subvert the 2020 election results in the state.

A trial date has not been set, while District Attorney Fani Willis has emphasised the need for a speedy resolution.

And in New York, Mr Trump has a March trial for charges in a hush-money scheme, in which he allegedly falsified business records to quieten sex scandals that came to light during his 2016 presidential campaign.

He is also involved in a state civil fraud case and a defamation challenge from writer E Jean Carroll in New York.

“The line-up represents overwhelming legal liability for anyone, let alone a presidential candidate,” Dr Chervinsky said.

Colorado has also opened a new legal front, with the state's Supreme Court ruling in December that Mr Trump is not eligible to run for the White House and ordering he be removed from the primary ballot.

The court based its decision on Section 3 in the 14th Amendment, which bars anyone who engages in insurrection against the US from running for office.

Unique legal challenges and threats abound

Mr Trump has pleaded not guilty in all of the cases he is facing and has said that he has presidential immunity, presenting new difficulties for the US judicial system.

“This is something that doesn't happen and everyone is figuring out how to react to that,” Geidner said.

The Department of Justice appointed Jack Smith as special counsel to independently manage the many federal cases against Mr Trump.

Judges and legal teams are trying charges with little “existing jurisprudence”, Dr Chervinsky said, with a “lack of precedent, both politically and in terms of guiding legal decisions”.

Mr Smith and Georgia prosecutors have a short time frame as they lead the only cases with possible verdicts that could prevent Mr Trump from running in the November election.

The importance of challenging him in court is significant for US democracy and national security reasons, the experts told The National.

“This is a rare moment where our infrastructure in America is actually being used to hold a leader accountable for actions in office,” Geidner said of the country's democratic institutions.

He said the Senate in 2021 lost a chance to hold Mr Trump accountable by not convicting him after the House of Representatives impeached him over January 6, thus leaving the justice system to legally try him now in Washington and Florida.

“It is notable that our various prosecutorial and investigatory bodies took time and did full investigations before deciding if whether to bring charges, and if so what charges to bring,” Geidner said.

“And they did so. And now, I think the proper next step is to resolve those charges before we get to the election.”

Donald Trump claims he will be a 'dictator only on day one' if he wins presidency

Donald Trump claims he will be a 'dictator only on day one' if he wins presidency

Mr Trump has added to the mounting pressure by assailing the prosecutions as a political “witch hunt”.

He has publicly criticised Mr Smith and floated the idea of pardoning hundreds of his supporters convicted over January 6, enacting “Project 2025“ and possibly ending investigations into him if he is re-elected.

If he is not convicted, Dr Chervinsky painted a more dire picture for the US if Mr Trump is not convicted.

“History suggests the best indicator of a future coup is a failed coup attempt,” she said.

“If would-be dictators are not held accountable, they gain confidence, refine their tactics, and try again.

"Legal accountability is the only way to defend against coups and ensure the survival of democratic institutions.”

Updated: December 29, 2023, 6:00 PM