Can A Convicted Criminal Become American President?

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Written By Saeed Maleki

Since becoming US President in January 2017, Donald Trump has challenged convention, tradition and norms at every turn – and the latest spate of prosecutions has only added to a long list of indictments and accusations of wrongdoing that many would consider impossible to recover from.

However, in a characteristic contradiction, supporters of the Make America Great Again, or MAGA movement, seem only to be more cemented in their support of Trump at every impropriety he is accused of.

The potential and unprecedented reality that a convicted felon could become president for the second time has sent the world of politics into free fall. Still, with no indication that Trump intends to withdraw from the forthcoming presidential elections and zero backing down in sight from either side, it is also a reality we need to consider.

The Charges Levied Against Former President Trump

It is challenging to keep up with the pace of indictments and accusations published against Trump. Still, the latest is the first time he has faced formal charges with a criminal offence, following the alleged attempts to distort and disrupt the results of the election in 2020.

Over the last 234 years of US history, no president or former president has ever been successfully indicted, but this has all changed swiftly and decisively. As it stands, Trump is facing four criminal cases:

  • Thirty-four felony counts in New York – related to money paid to adult film star Stormy Daniels.
  • Forty felony counts in Florida – for taking classified documents and attempting to stop law enforcement agents from retrieving them.
  • Four felony counts in Washington DC – for attempts to overturn the presidential election.
  • Thirteen felony counts in Georgia – linked to election interference.

The list is long and complex. On one side, prosecutors have documentation and public tweets where Trump has made statements that are false or seen to stoke anger to challenge what he said was a case of voter fraud.

Aides who formerly worked for Trump or his administration have testified under grand jury conditions, providing insights and evidence. Those giving statements include VP Mike Pence, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Pat Cipollone, White House Counsel, Robert O’Brien, National Security Adviser, and Senior Policy Adviser Stephen Miller.

While a list of witnesses in key positions giving testimony for the prosecution may seem like a done deal, nothing is ever certain with Trump. Legal experts are still trying to unpick the lawful routes that could hold a former president accountable for impeding a normal transfer of power, As several cases have never before been tried, the issues are novel and subject to interpretation.

The Potential For Trump To Serve As President If Convicted

In one of the many ambiguities, there is no law or regulation enshrined in the US Constitution that prevents a convicted felon from campaigning for the presidency or being elected. The 14th Amendment is a potential route for critics to explore, which states that those who have taken an oath – part of the inauguration ceremony – cannot hold office if they have been involved in rebellion or insurrection.

The results of these various cases will not be known for some months to come, but civil lawsuits will certainly be an inevitable outcome where states, courts, campaigners, prosecutors, and potentially the opposition look at ways to automatically disqualify Trump from continuing his presidential campaign.

A case in New Mexico established a possible precedent, citing the 14th Amendment to block a county commissioner from the role following a conviction of federal charges, also linked to the January 6th insurrection. However, this was the first time since the days of the Civil War that an official was removed from a post for this reason, and it was far from a verified norm.

Should a criminal trial continue to be scheduled during the primaries, it will be a huge blow to the Trump camp, meaning he will be required to testify in court under oath rather than following the usual campaign trail.

However, even if convicted, before or after a nomination, Trump is extremely likely to take every avenue possible to appeal, which would take several months to reach the conservative majority-ruled Supreme Court.

The Potential For Trump To Prompt A Constitutional Crisis

Among the indictments and accusations, Trump is charged with hush-money schemes, deliberately attempting to falsify voter outcomes, retaining and disclosing documents with national security implications, and inciting insurrection, which led to the deaths of five people.

There is the potential for Trump to be successfully elected as president regardless of criminal prosecutions and indictments still outstanding against him, which would almost certainly mean a huge, blistering constitutional crisis that would challenge nearly every aspect of the US legal system and political framework.

Remarkably, there is no legal reason a person who is incarcerated in prison or with a record as a convicted felon cannot run for president. If convicted for falsifying business records, Trump could be sentenced to four years in prison, whereas a conviction for attempting to overturn the 2020 election could carry a sentence of up to 20 years per count – Trump is charged with two.

In the unlikely event that Trump was convicted of every felony and criminal case against him, the 77-year-old could be sentenced to over 640 years in prison, although the expectation is that any conviction would be met with appeals, requests for reduced sentences, and considerations around first-time convictions.

There is also the possibility that Trump could be re-elected as president for a second time and choose to pardon himself of all federal crimes. However, this outcome would be equally controversial and subject to extreme debate where self-pardoning is far from an established course of action or something the electorate would be readily prepared to accept.

Whatever happens, there are bound to be fireworks, and it seems certain that Trump will be more than happy to watch the sparks fall as they may.


How likely is Donald Trump to be convicted?

The proverbial jury is out at this stage, but it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Trump will be convicted, with a substantial number of counts and charges against him at state and felony levels. If found guilty of even a fraction of the accusations, Trump could possibly be sentenced to decades in prison, which would far surpass his life expectancy at age 77. This is untested ground, and the legal minds behind each case will be looking to establish never-before-seen precedents.

Will Donald Trump be given a prison sentence?

Irrespective of the outcomes, Trump is unlikely to end up in state prison. As a former president, he could be subject to a lighter or adjusted sentence for safety reasons should a jury convict him of a crime. New York criminal law, for example, states that first-time offenders are normally sentenced to shorter terms of several months rather than several years or are excused from incarceration.

Can Trump serve as president if he is convicted of a felony?

In short, yes. The US Constitution has no rules or even strict eligibility requirements for an individual to run for office. They must fulfil criteria such as being natural citizens of at least 35 and having lived in the US for 14 years or more.

The biggest obstacle to political power in the US is support, backing and financing since the average presidential campaign follows several years in politics and requires a capital injected of millions. The 2020 elections cost the candidates $14 billion collectively.

While being a convicted felon, or even being in person, does not technically block Trump from running or serving as president, this scenario would be a rocky sea of unchartered territory and would mean the highest regarded federal judges would need to decide how to move forward.

When is Trump’s court case scheduled for?

Federal charges linked to attempts to overturn the results from the 2020 presidential election are scheduled for March 2024. Interestingly, the court date is just one day before Republican voters across multiple states decide whether to support his nomination as the party’s candidate.

This date relates to the Washington DC charges and was set after the judge overturned attempts by Trump’s legal team to request a trial be delayed until 2026, citing the interests of justice and giving the defendant sufficient time to prepare.

Is Trump still allowed to run for president?

He is – but any presidential nominee needs to have the backing of their party. Currently, around 74 per cent of Republicans have said they would support Trump, although this sentiment butts against the general feeling of the US population, with 53 per cent of Americans stating they would not vote for Trump if he were to stand as the Republican nominee next year.