Explainer: Why Donald Trump could be president again despite his legal troubles

April 16, 2024 - 4:47 PM
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Former President Donald Trump walks out of the courtroom following the first day of jury selection at the Manhattan criminal court in New York, NY on Monday, April 15, 2024. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is set to stand trial in New York on Monday on charges that he illegally covered up a hush money payment to a porn star.

But what happens if the jury convicts the former U.S. president and the judge imposes a sentence before the November election?

Would Trump go to prison?

It is not yet known what sentence, if any, the judge may impose if Trump is convicted.

Prosecutors have charged Trump, who has pleaded not guilty, with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. The maximum sentence for the charge is 1-1/3 to four years in prison, but in cases involving prison time, defendants are typically sentenced to a year or less.

But Trump would be a first-time offender for a nonviolent crime, and it is rare for people with no criminal histories who are charged solely with falsification of business records to be sentenced to prison in New York. Punishments like fines or probation are more common.

If punished beyond a fine, Trump could be placed under home confinement or subjected to a curfew rather than imprisoned.

As a former president, he has a lifetime Secret Service detail, and the logistics of keeping him safe behind bars could be complicated.

Trump could also be released on bail while appealing a conviction.

Could Trump still be president if convicted? 

Yes. The U.S. Constitution only requires that presidents be at least 35 years old and U.S. citizens who have lived in the country for 14 years.

Neither a criminal conviction nor a prison sentence would affect Trump’s eligibility for office. In theory, he could be sworn in from jail, prison or home confinement if he were to win the election after being convicted and sentenced.

He could not pardon himself in the hush money case since he is charged with state rather than federal crimes and presidential pardon power only applies to the latter.

What’s the impact of a conviction on the election? 

Trump has used the four criminal cases against him to his fundraising advantage, claiming they are part of a political conspiracy. His campaign’s financial filings last year showed surges in donations following his indictments.

But only half of Republicans in a Reuters/Ipsos poll in February said they would vote for Trump if a jury convicted him.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll this month found a firm majority of voters viewed the New York criminal charges against Trump as serious. About a quarter of Republican respondents to the April poll said they would not vote for Trump if he were convicted of a felony crime by a jury.

What about other cases?

Trump has been charged in Georgia and Washington over his efforts to reverse his 2020 election loss to Democrat Joe Biden and in Florida over his handling of classified documents upon leaving office.

It is unclear if any of those cases will go to trial before the Nov. 5 election.

Because the Washington and Florida cases were brought in federal court, Trump could end them if he wins the election by appointing an attorney general who could dismiss them. He could also potentially pardon himself.

The Georgia and New York cases were both brought in state courts, so Trump could neither pardon himself nor end the cases by firing the prosecutors who brought them.

— Reporting by Jack Queen; Additional reporting by Luc Coehn; Editing by Howard Goller and Noeleen Walder