Donald Trump's biggest legal threats

 Donald Trump.
Credit: Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

In May, following weeks of closely watched testimony and legal wrangling, Donald Trump became the first former president in United States history to be criminally convicted in a jury trial, netting 34 separate felony guilty verdicts for falsifying business records related to hush money payments concealing his alleged affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels.

The convictions, which Trump has steadfastly rejected, are not simply a historic first. They are also the tip of a larger iceberg of legal peril for the former president as he mounts another bid for the White House in 2024. Not only has Trump also been found liable in the assault of longtime Elle magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll, but faces two separate federal indictments for his role in working to subvert the results of the 2020 presidential election, as well as improperly storing classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate. In each instance, Trump has publicly maintained his innocence.

These cases fueled an ongoing debate over Trump's many vulnerabilities — both legal and electoral — for the 2024 presidential election. At the same time, Trump has already begun using his legal peril as a springboard for a renewed fundraising push to supporters, even as rivals and detractors seize upon his potentially criminal vulnerability as the 2024 campaign begins to intensify.

While Trump has deftly avoided (and in some cases even utilized) lawsuits and threats of criminal action for his own purposes in the past, he is now for the first time in his career facing a very real possibility of both time in prison, and further convictions for a host of allegations: some related, some disparate, and all serious.

These are the major judicial challenges currently threatening Donald Trump:

Federal investigation into classified documents

In June, Justice Department Special Counsel Jack Smith charged Donald Trump with 37 felony counts relating to his alleged mishandling of a tranche of highly classified documents found at the former president's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, following a dramatic FBI raid on the property in August 2022. Per Smith's indictment, Trump was "not authorized to possess or retain those classified documents," nor was the property an "authorized location for the storage, possession, review, display or discussion of classified documents." The bulk of the charges against Trump are for "willful retention of national defense information," although he has also been charged with making false statements to investigators, as well as conspiring to obstruct justice. In late June, Smith filed a superseding indictment against Trump with several additional charges, including allegations that Trump had worked to destroy evidence in the case. Florida Judge Aileen Cannon has yet to commit to a firm start date for the trial, which was initially scheduled for late May, as various motions to dismiss the case and additional legal wrangling threaten to push any ultimate court date past the upcoming election.

Federal investigation into election interference and Jan. 6

On August 1, Smith announced a second slate of charges against Trump for his role in working to subvert the results of the 2020 presidential election, and the violent insurrection that ensued at the Capitol complex on Jan. 6, 2021. The 45-page indictment, issued in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, charges Trump with four counts of conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, obstruction of justice, and witness tampering. In a speech delivered shortly after the indictment was made public, Smith described Trump's attempt to disrupt a "bedrock function of the U.S. government" as having been knowingly "fueled by lies."

Trump's election interference case is being presided over by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is widely regarded as one of the district's most strict sentencers for convicted Jan. 6 defendants. Efforts to expedite the case have been hampered, however, by an overriding legal battle over Trump's claim of presidential immunity — an issue the United State Supreme Court has agreed to hear in late April, thereby likely pushing the lower court's trial well into early fall, and possibly beyond the 2024 election itself.

2020 election subversion in Georgia

After more than a year of investigating alleged efforts by Trump and his allies to manipulate and overturn his 2020 electoral loss in the state of Georgia, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis handed up what is perhaps the most acute legal threat the former president faces today — a 97-page indictment detailing 13 felony criminal counts against Trump and dozens more for his 17 co-conspirators, including Rudy Giuliani and Mark Meadows. At its core, the Georgia indictment alleges that Trump and others engaged in a "criminal enterprise" to subvert the 2020 election in violation of the state's expansive Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. It cites a number of well-publicized incidents, including Trump's personal call to Georgia's Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger demanding he "find" more than 11,000 votes in Trump's favor, as well as other acts like the breaching of voting machines and endorsement of false electoral college votes.

Because the charges brought against Trump are violations of state, rather than federal, law, the former president has little opportunity for a potential pardon should he ultimately be convicted. He has maintained his innocence throughout, explaining at a brief press conference following his surrender at the Fulton County Jail that he had "every single right" to challenge the 2020 election, and had done "nothing wrong at all," per NBC News.

Despite Willis' proposed March 4 trial start date, proceedings for Trump's Georgia case have yet to begin, thanks in part to a push from the former president to disrupt the proceedings over Willis' allegedly inappropriate relationship with her Special Prosecutor Nathan Wade, who has since resigned from the case. In late March, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee heard arguments from Trump's attorneys to dismiss Willis' case entirely on First Amendment grounds, but has yet to rule on the petition nor give any indication on when such a ruling might occur. Willis has remained hopeful that the trial will nevertheless begin well before the 2024 election, and has hinted at re-upping a previous request for an August start date.

No matter when the case does ultimately go to trial, it could differ from Trump's other legal woes in one key way: It may be the only one televised, NBC News reported.

Author E. Jean Carroll's lawsuits over alleged 1990s rape

This past May, federal jurors in Manhattan found Trump liable for sexual abuse against former Elle magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll, who alleged the former president raped her in a Bergdorf Goodman's department store dressing room in the mid-1990s. Trump was ordered to pay $5 million in damages, although he was cleared of the more serious allegations of rape, based on the limited legal standard of the act set forth by presiding Judge Lewis Kaplan. Kaplan later clarified that the "finding that Ms. Carroll failed to prove that she was 'raped' within the meaning of the New York Penal Law does not mean that she failed to prove that Mr. Trump 'raped' her as many people commonly understand the word 'rape,'" noting that the "jury found that Mr. Trump in fact did exactly that."

Trump had long denied the allegations, calling Carroll "not my type" in 2019, and then a "hoax" and "con job" three years later, prompting a separate, and currently ongoing, federal defamation suit. Following her victory in Manhattan, and Trump's subsequent comments that she was a "whack job" whom he'd never met, Carroll was granted permission to amend that suit to include those latest remarks. In late January of 2024, a jury found Trump liable for more than $83 million dollars in damages against Carroll, forcing the former president to post a nearly $95 million dollar bond to prevent Carroll from collecting the sum while he appeals that ruling.

The Stormy Daniels hush money payments

There's an irony of sorts to the fact that Trump's first criminal indictment and conviction is perhaps also his most mundane. It took a panel of Manhattan jurors just two days of deliberation to find the former President guilty on all 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, related to his having paid $130,000 to adult film star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential election in exchange for her silence on their alleged sexual relationship.

The trial itself, held in Manhattan's 100 Centre St. criminal courthouse, lasted just five weeks and was largely focused on the ins-and-outs of how the hush money moved through various intermediaries. Still, Trump's legally mandated presence and ensuing courtroom drama — particularly attacks on presiding judge Juan Merchan and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg by Trump and his allies — heightened the media frenzy around the already-historic case, resulting in a judicial gag order for the former president accompanied by the most overt threat of jail time to date. Following the guilty verdicts, Trump denounced his convictions as a "disgrace" and predicted the "real verdict is going to be November fifth by the people." He has also vowed to appeal his conviction.

Trump is scheduled to face sentencing on July 11 — four days before he is set to officially accept his party's nomination for president at the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee — and could see consequences ranging from probation and a conditional discharge to prison time. While each of his 34 felony counts carries thousands of dollars in fines and up to four years in prison, Trump would "likely be ordered to serve the prison time concurrently for each count, so up to four years, total," ABC News said.

New York Civil Fraud case

In 2022, New York State Attorney General Letitia James concluded a longstanding investigation into the Trump Organization's business practices with a massive lawsuit against the former president, his children Don Jr., Eric and Ivanka, and the company itself, alleging the defendants had fraudulently inflated their various business assets by billions of dollars.

In late 2023, New York Judge Arthur Engoron determined that Trump and his fellow co-defendants had indeed committed fraud, effectively ending the case before it could be argued on its merits in front of a jury. Instead, in February, 2024, Engoron found Trump liable for more than $450 million, forcing the former President to scramble to obtain an enormous bond, or risk asset forfeiture in New York. Weeks later, a New York appellate court significantly lowered the amount, ruling that Trump need only post a (comparatively) smaller $175 million bond. The court also ruled that Trump could be afforded an additional ten days to provide the sum.