Once impeachment is over, the threat to Trump shifts to real courtrooms

Once impeachment is over, the threat to Trump shifts to real courtrooms

17:24 - As the Senate trial judging Donald Trump’s second impeachment got underway on Tuesday, his lead defense attorney, Bruce Castor, offered an unexpected rationale for setting the impeachment aside.

“There is no opportunity where the president of the United States can run rampant in January at the end of his term and just go away scot-free,” Castor said. “The Department of Justice does know what to do with such people.”

After all, if the president had committed crimes, “after he’s out of office, you go and arrest him,” he said.

Reporting suggests that Trump, watching from Mar-a-Lago, wasn’t happy with Castor’s performance. Given his attorney’s embrace of potentially having his client arrested, one can understand why.

That’s not likely to happen, mind you. While the D.C. attorney general did suggest shortly after the Capitol was overrun by a pro-Trump mob on Jan. 6 that Trump himself might be charged with a misdemeanor for inciting the violence, that remains unlikely. But the discussion of Trump’s liability to criminal prosecution does serve as a reminder that this is very much still a non-theoretical threat the former president faces.

For example, we learned this week that investigators in Georgia were beginning the process of potentially bringing charges against Trump for another facet of his impeachment: his effort to get Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” enough votes in the state to give Trump a victory there in the 2020 presidential contest. (Secretary Brad Raffensperger declined to do so.)

It’s unlikely that this will result in charges, but it’s not a casual investigation. Speaking to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Thursday, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis (D) explained that her office’s probe extends beyond the recorded call with Raffensperger first obtained by The Washington Post last month. The investigation being led by Willis is also separate from a similar one initiated at the state level.

Trump faces similar multitiered investigations in other places as well.

For example, the fundraising and spending of his 2017 inaugural committee is reportedly under investigation from at least three entities.

“I’m working with three different prosecutors, and it’s taken over my life,” former Trump spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham told “Good Morning America” in August. That includes the Southern District of New York at the federal level and attorneys general in D.C. and New Jersey.

In 2019, a donor to the inaugural committee pleaded guilty to having attempted to obstruct the federal probe into the committee’s finances. Last month, the D.C. attorney general’s office alerted Donald Trump Jr. that it wanted to interview him on the subject.

Then there are the investigations into Trump’s personal business. In his testimony before Congress in 2019, Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen suggested that the Trump Organization had been engaged in efforts to misstate the value of properties to reduce property tax obligations. That appears to have helped trigger more scrutiny for his former employer.

The office of New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) is engaged in a civil probe of the Trump Organization’s finances. That effort had a recent court victory, with the state’s Supreme Court ordering the Trump Organization to turn over tax documents. In New York City, the Manhattan district attorney is well into a criminal probe with the same focus. In December, the New York Times reported that this investigation had “intensified” following the election, though it “remains unclear whether the office of the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., will ultimately bring charges.”

One cloud hanging over Trump has cleared, however. Last week, the Associated Press reported that an investigation into campaign finance violations related to hush-money payments made before the 2016 election was “dead.” Cohen himself had pleaded guilty to violating federal law for his role in facilitating the payments to two women who’d alleged extramarital relationships with the then-candidate. In doing so, he directly implicated Trump — but a probe into the former president will likely not move forward.

Trump’s exposure to legal risk is broader than these investigations. He is also the target of a defamation lawsuit from journalist E. Jean Carroll.

In 2019, Carroll came forward with an allegation that Trump had sexually assaulted her in the 1990s. Trump dismissed the allegation, saying that she was lying to sell books and that she was “not my type.” Carroll sued in late 2019.

While he was president, Trump was shielded from criminal indictment and saw the Justice Department he ran intervene to try to derail the Carroll lawsuit. He no longer has those protections. He’s not likely to face any criminal charges related to the events of Jan. 6, which are at the heart of the impeachment trial, but he may come to appreciate the relatively low stakes this trial involves.