Can Trump still become president if he's convicted of a crime or found liable in a civil case?
Washington — Former President Donald Trump surrendered to authorities in New York in early April and appeared in state court to face 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first degree. He pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
Then, on May 9, Trump was found liable in a civil case brought by columnist E. Jean Carroll, who claimed Trump raped her in a department store fitting room in the 1990s and defamed her when she came forward several years ago. He also denied those allegations. The jury did not find that he raped Carroll, but did find that he sexually abused her, and ordered him to pay her roughly $5 million. The bar for finding someone liable in a civil case is lower than the burden of proof required to secure a criminal conviction, and does not count as a criminal record.
The two cases raise an intriguing question about his bid to retake the White House: can he still become president if he's convicted in New York, or now that he's been found liable in the Carroll case?
The short answer, from a legal perspective, is yes, according to experts.
While charges against a former president and leading contender for a major party's presidential nomination are unprecedented, there is nothing in the Constitution that prevents someone who has been charged or convicted from seeking or taking office. There is also nothing barring someone found liable in a civil suit from entering the White House.
"It's pretty widely accepted that the list of qualifications in the Constitution is exclusive — that is, Congress or states can't add qualifications to those listed in the Constitution," said Derek Muller, a law professor at the University of Iowa, before Trump's indictment. "It's something that really doesn't affect your ability to run as a candidate, to appear on the ballot, or to even win the election."
In the criminal case, a New York grand jury was convened by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who has been investigating matters related to a $130,000 payment made to the porn star Stormy Daniels shortly before the 2016 presidential election. Michael Cohen, Trump's then-attorney and "fixer," made the payment in exchange for Daniels agreeing not to disclose an alleged affair she said she had with Trump a decade earlier, which he denies.
Trump reimbursed Cohen for the payment, and prosecutors zeroed in on the alleged falsification of business records over the reimbursements. Attorney Robert Costello, a Trump ally who says he advised Cohen on legal matters, said he told the grand jury that Cohen acted on his own accord in arranging the deal with Daniels and was a "totally unreliable" witness.
The decision to charge Trump sent shockwaves throughout the political world and introduce an unpredictable new dimension to the 2024 race for the GOP nomination. Legally speaking, however, the Constitution lays out just three requirements to become president: the person must be a natural born citizen of the United States, 35 years or older and a resident of the U.S. for at least 14 years.
Indeed, candidates with criminal convictions have run for president in the past. There is even precedent for running for president from prison.
Dan Ortiz, a professor at the University of Virginia Law School, pointed to Eugene Debs, who ran for president while behind bars in a federal prison in Atlanta as the nominee of the Socialist Party in 1920. Debs had been convicted of violating the Espionage Act over an anti-war speech. He won more than 3% of the vote nationally.
"I know of nothing that would have barred him from the office if he had won the election," Ortiz said.
Lyndon LaRouche, a fringe candidate who espoused conspiracy theories about an economic apocalypse, ran for president in every election between 1976 and 2004. He was convicted of tax and mail fraud in 1988, but that didn't stop him from running his campaign from prison in 1992.
Although there may be practical hurdles involved in running a campaign under the shadow of criminal charges, including any restrictions on travel imposed by a judge, there are no constitutional obstacles to participating in the election, according to Muller.
"If you're convicted of a felony and incarcerated, you can't vote, but you can win the election," Muller said. "The point is, there were meant to be very few qualifications, and it was meant to be left to the voters or the state."
In the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, some House Democrats introduced a bill seeking to bar Trump from holding office again by invoking the 14th Amendment, which bars anyone who has "engaged in insurrection or rebellion" or "given aid or comfort" to enemies of the U.S. after having taken an oath to support the Constitution. That bill never made it out of the House before Republicans took control in January.
Some Trump allies have argued that being charged would actually bolster Trump's candidacy for the GOP nomination by rallying the Republican base to his defense. Top GOP lawmakers and his rivals for the nomination have been reluctant to criticize Trump directly and have largely framed the indictment as an abuse of power by Manhattan prosecutors.
The former president also faces several other criminal investigations on the state and federal level that could complicate his ability to campaign for the nomination. But none of those cases would technically prevent him from running for or winning the White House, even if he is ultimately convicted.
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