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WASHINGTON, May 27 ― Would Donald Trump run for president under indictment? No charges have been filed, but a grand jury may bring findings this year that put the ex-president in legal jeopardy and pose grave risks to his 2024 ambitions.
Headlines about Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance launching a six-month grand jury, ramping up the years-long investigation into the business dealings of Trump and the Trump Organization, sparked a flurry of speculation over the one-term president's political future.
Trump is facing investigations by federal and New York state authorities into whether he or his company lied about the value of assets to defraud banks and insurance companies, or to obtain tax benefits illegally.
Indictments, a conviction or even prison time would not bar any American from seeking the highest office, as there is nothing unconstitutional about a convicted criminal winning the White House, a number of experts told AFP.
States may impose their own rules in campaigns for statewide office, but “there is no requirement that a candidate for president or Congress not be indicted,” said election law expert Rick Hasen of the University of California, Irvine School of Law.
But any such developments would undoubtedly damage an already wounded Republican leader contemplating what would almost certainly be the most stunning comeback in US political history.
“This is potentially extremely serious,” Howard Schweber, a professor of American politics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said of the grand jury being convened.
“What seems clear is that there are major criminal indictments on the way and that those indictments will target the people at the top of the Trump business.”
Trump has signalled he may launch another presidential bid despite an unprecedented two impeachments and falling approval ratings after the deadly January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, which his opponents say he incited.
Trump offered hints after news of his legal woes broke about the scorched-earth tone he would take in any future campaign, rejecting the ongoing investigation as “a continuation of the greatest Witch Hunt in American history.”
“Our Country is broken, our elections are rigged, corrupt, and stolen, our prosecutors are politicized, and I will just have to keep on fighting like I have been for the last five years!” he said in a statement.
Trump noted a recent poll indicating he was “far in the lead” for the Republican presidential primary, a declaration appearing to warn party leaders or rival candidates against counting him out.
There have been examples of criminal suspects bidding for office as recently as 2008, when US senator Ted Stevens ran unsuccessfully for re-election despite a federal grand-jury indictment for corruption.
In 1992, perennial third-party candidate Lyndon LaRouche ran unsuccessfully for president from a federal prison cell.
No American under federal indictment has ever won the presidency, and George W. Bush is the only person with a criminal conviction ― he was fined after admitting drunk driving ― to serve in the office.
No US president has ever been charged with a crime after leaving office.
In 2016, the brash billionaire Trump, fully aware of the deeply polarized US political landscape, blurted out an almost unthinkable declaration: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK?”
While no one is charging Trump with capital murder, the loyalty principle would be put to the test should he run in 2024 stained by indictment or conviction.
Trump would not need a majority of the nation or even Republican Party voters to get the GOP nomination, just a plurality of Republican primary voters.
“There's really no middle now,” said Michigan State University law professor Brian Kalt, who believes that “99 per cent” of Americans are entrenched in their pro- or anti-Trump camps, regardless of the issue.
“Any discussion about the legal nuances is really beside the point,” Kalt said.
And what if a candidate were to win the presidency while in prison?
“It would be a pretty remarkable situation,” says Kalt, adding that a judge or governor would have to design his incarceration in a manner that would allow him to run the country.
But how Trump wins over enough voters after he has been accused or convicted of substantial crimes would be the ultimate challenge of his political career.
“Even the possibility that it wouldn't tank someone's candidacy is pretty remarkable,” Kalt said.
Whether Trump will be indicted remains unknown. But “it is actually not clear that even a criminal conviction of Trump would be very politically damaging,” the University of Wisconsin's Schweber said.
“The pattern for Trump has always been that he has held a core of supporters for whom any claim of wrongdoing only strengthens their loyalty.” ― AFP
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