Here’s why you should pay attention to Donald Trump’s fourth indictment: It’s potentially more legally perilous than the others, and the trial could be a show unlike anything we’ve seen before in modern American legal history.
Here are all the ways Trump’s Georgia arraignment and trial could be different.
If Trump were to become president, he could assign an attorney general to make the federal charges against him go away. Or he could pardon himself if he was already convicted.
But the 13 charges against Trump, including one for racketeering, are state charges, and a president’s pardon power doesn’t extend to states.
In fact, Trump couldn’t even ask the Republican governor to pardon him. In Georgia, the power to pardon rests with a governor-appointed board.
“This feels more like a reckoning because this is one of the few indictments out of his control,” said Caren Morrison, a former federal prosecutor who is now an associate professor at Georgia State University College of Law.
The one caveat: If Trump is president before the trial wraps up, he could argue he can’t sit for a trial on the grounds of a Justice Department opinion that says sitting presidents can’t be indicted, said Barbara McQuade, a former federal prosecutor who has tried racketeering cases.
That differentiates it from a similar federal indictment, which was comparatively straightforward and focused entirely on Trump. And that could set a possible Georgia trial apart in at least three different ways, legal experts say:
It will aim to tell a story that perhaps no other indictment can. The indictment spans seven states and Washington, D.C. It attempts to tie Trump’s false tweets about election fraud to his calls to at least six state officials in Georgia, to his allies’ pressure campaign of Georgia Republican lawmakers, to an attempt to access sensitive voting equipment in rural Georgia the day after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. “It’s encyclopedic,” Morrison said. “It feels like she brought in the whole country,” said Clark Cunningham, a law professor at Georgia State University.It could hold people other than Trump accountable for what happened. “He couldn’t have done it on his own,” said Cunningham of Trump. The indictment lists 18 co-defendants alongside Trump, ranging from lawyers who worked with him to a Georgia state senator to the then-White House chief of staff, to a former Justice Department official.It focuses on direct attacks on individuals like local election workers. That lets prosecutors make the case that even if Trump truly believed he won, he and allies attacked ordinary people to prove their point. “That might give this case more jury appeal and more public appeal than the federal case,” said McQuade.
“This is the story of the actual people,” added Morrison, “and that makes it incredibly interesting.”
When Trump has appeared in court to plead not guilty for federal charges or his New York case about falsifying business records, he has not been subject to a mug shot. Georgia law is different.
Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat has said that if Trump is charged, he will be treated like any other arrestee — a mug shot, which could be made public. He could be fingerprinted, too. Rather than arrive at a courthouse, he’ll also have to surrender at the county jail where squalid conditions and an inmate death recently sparked a Justice Department investigation. Trump’s attorneys or the Secret Service could press for the former president to be processed in another location instead of the jail.
“Unless someone tells me differently, we are following our normal practices,” Labat said.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has said she’ll give defendants until Aug. 25 to surrender.
The media spectacle around Trump’s previous arraignments stopped at the courtroom doors: Federal courthouses and the state of New York prohibit cameras inside, and the Washington, D.C., judge overseeing the Jan. 6 case didn’t make an exception for Trump.
Georgia law is different, though. Cameras are allowed to capture proceedings, even trials. Late Monday night, the relatively routine paperwork tied to Trump’s indictment was broadcast on national TV. The judge signed off on it, then handed it over to a court clerk, who walked out of the room to process it. “That’s it,” the judge remarked to reporters in the courtroom watching. “Was it all you hoped it would be?”
“Tell us what it said?” asked one.
“I didn’t get a good look,” the judge replied.
Cameras will open up Trump’s legal troubles to a wider swath of America. And from there it’s an open question how it affects the Republican presidential race.
Willis, a Democrat, has a reputation as a bold prosecutor unafraid to take on big fish (a former president, Atlanta schoolteachers, a prominent rapper).
She also does things her own way, legal experts say. She seemed unconcerned with the presidential campaign calendar and indicted 19 people rather than keep it focused on Trump. She indicted Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff at the end of Trump’s time in office, even when legal experts widely think it’s possible he’s cooperating with the federal investigation into Trump’s efforts to overturn the election. She has said that if people are convicted, they could spend time in jail.
And that leaves an element of uncertainty for an already historic indictment and trial.
Holly Bailey contributed to this report.