WASHINGTON (AP) — As a businessman and president, Donald Trump has faced a litany of lawsuits and criminal investigations, but has repeatedly emerged from legal scrutiny with his public and political stance widely intact.
But he may never have faced an investigation as perilous as the Mar-a-Lago investigation, an investigation centered on the potential mishandling of top secret documents. The sense of vulnerability has been heightened in recent weeks not only by the Justice Department’s appointment of a special counsel notorious for his aggressiveness, but also by the removal of an independent arbitrator sought by Trump in the case and by the unequivocal rejection of his lawyers by the judges. ‘arguments.
It is impossible to predict how long the investigation will last or whether the Justice Department will take the unprecedented step of indicting a former president and current candidate. But Trump is no longer immune from prosecution as he was as president, and some legal experts view the Mar-a-Lago inquiry as centered on simpler factual and legal issues than previous inquiries to which he was confronted.
“Unlike many of these past investigations that involved these complex financial frauds where prosecutors have to explain to a jury why driving is even a crime to begin with, here prosecutors won’t have that difficulty, won’t have that challenge of ‘explain what the crime is about’ if charges are ultimately brought, former Justice Department prosecutor Robert Mintz said.
An investigative hurdle for the Justice Department was lifted last week when an appeals court panel including two Trump-appointed judges terminated the work of a special master who had been tasked with an independent review of the thousands of documents seized during the FBI’s search of Mar-à-Lago. The decision allows prosecutors to use the entire cache of records for their investigation.
In a searing opinion that goes back a long way in history, the court acknowledged that a search of an ex-president’s property is extraordinary but not extraordinary enough to give him special treatment.
“It’s not often you see cases cited in appeals court decisions that were made in 1794, in the 1800s,” said David Weinstein, a Florida criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor. . “These are fundamental principles of law that have been around for a long time that they relied on.”
Of course, investigations are nothing new for Trump, and speculation about his legal danger has already been off the table.
Last year, New York state prosecutors indicted Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, and its longtime chief financial officer, but did not charge the former president. In September, the New York attorney general accused Trump of boosting his net worth by billions of dollars and defrauding banks – but those allegations were made as part of a trial, not a case criminal.
As president, he was investigated by former special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, over whether his successful 2016 campaign illegally colluded with Russia and he had tried to obstruct this investigation. Mueller ultimately found insufficient evidence to allege a criminal conspiracy between the campaign and Russia and also cited longstanding Justice Department policy that prohibits the indictment of a sitting president.
The obstruction part of this investigation involved an analysis of constitutional law and the scope of presidential power. But prosecutors in the Mar-a-Lago investigation have largely dismissed the relevance of Trump’s status as a former president, saying in a court battle against the special master that classified records he had access to as commander-in-chief still do not belong to him.
And the appeals committee, in its opinion last week, rejected the idea that Trump had the right to retrieve the documents seized from his home or have them reviewed by an independent arbitrator, which he said would create a “special exception”.
The investigation into the records had simmered for months before erupting with an FBI raid Aug. 8 in Mar-a-Lago, with officers removing about 100 documents with classification marks. At this point, Justice Department officials said they had developed probable cause to believe that crimes had been committed related to the withholding of national defense information as well as the obstruction.
The investigation has since shown signs of accelerating, with the Justice Department presenting evidence to a grand jury and last month granting immunity to a Trump ally to obtain his testimony.
The investigation is being led by Jack Smith, who previously headed the Justice Department’s public integrity section and most recently served as a war crimes prosecutor in The Hague. Smith is also overseeing key aspects of a separate Justice Department investigation related to efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. The Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney is investigating separately on attempts to void the results of this state.
Smith’s nomination by Attorney General Merrick Garland came three days after Trump declared his candidacy for the White House. The announcement won’t stop the investigation, though it may pick up the pace to avoid colliding with the heart of the 2024 presidential race.
His candidacy could theoretically give more prominence to the investigation, said former federal prosecutor Franklin Monsour Jr., since it will no longer just be about a former president. “Now it’s about someone trying to be president again and trying to own national security equipment again.”
Still, legal experts expect the Justice Department to weigh more than the strength of the evidence when deciding whether to pursue a case. There will be questions about how much classified evidence he can present to a jury — and the feasibility of choosing an unbiased jury given the ubiquitous recognition of Trump’s name and the heated reactions he produces from both sides.
Prosecuting a former president also risks being viewed as political, further polarizing an already divided country and turning a courtroom into a circus atmosphere.
“It’s basically a matter of weighing the principle that no individual is above the law against the practical political fallout of bringing these kinds of accusations against a former president, especially one who is running for office again. presidency, will spawn,” Mintz said.
“It’s an extraordinarily difficult decision,” he added.
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