The criminal investigations against Trump continue – even if he is a candidate

WASHINGTON (AP) – Donald Trump’s early announcement of his third White House bid will not protect the former President from the criminal investigations he is already facing as an ordinary citizen, leaving him legally and politically exposed while he seeks the 2024 Republican nomination.

The Justice Department is pursuing its investigation. And with the midterm elections now mostly over, and the 2024 presidential campaign about to get underway in earnest, federal prosecutors have plenty of time to get on with their work even if Trump does campaign.

“I don’t think the Department will hesitate because Trump has nominated and anointed himself as the first candidate for the 2024 election,” said former Justice Department prosecutor Michael Weinstein. “I just think that’s what they’ll see when he tries to play the system, as he did very successfully in court,” and they’re braced for his “setback.”

Entering the race, Trump faces federal investigations related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results and in hoarding top-secret government documents at his Florida estate — plus a separate state investigation in Georgia. The Mar-a-Lago investigation has moved particularly quickly, with prosecutors this month granting immunity to a close Trump ally to secure his testimony before a federal grand jury. Justice Department attorneys in that investigation say they have gathered evidence of possible crimes involving not only the obstruction but also the willful withholding of national defense information.

It remains unclear if anyone will be charged, as well as the timeline for a decision. But former officials say the best way to ensure the outcome is seen as above reproach is to conduct a by-the-book investigation that shows no particular favoritism or mistreatment due to Trump’s former high office.

“The public will have the greatest confidence in what you do, and you will achieve the most successful results, when you treat Donald Trump like any other American,” said Matthew Miller, who served as Justice Department spokesman under former Attorney General Eric Holder .

Current Attorney General Merrick Garland suggested so, saying last summer in response to questions about Trump and the Jan. 6 investigation that “no one is above the law.” When asked in a television interview in July how a potential Trump candidacy might affect the department, Garland replied, “We will hold accountable everyone criminally responsible for attempting to transmit — legitimately, lawfully — the transmission disrupting power from one government to the next.”

The investigation of an elected official or candidate for office almost always invites political speculation. The Justice Department’s protocol warns prosecutors not to take overt action in the immediate run-up to an election, but that’s more of a standard convention than a hard-and-fast rule. And the 2024 presidential contest is two years away.

Still, investigating a former president or current candidate isn’t easy. This is especially true for Trump, who has spent his presidency attacking his own Justice Department and preaching about self-appointed attorneys general. He has previously berated the FBI for the August raid of Mar-a-Lago and used the episode to raise funds from supporters.

Now, with his candidacy official, he and his supporters will seek to reframe the investigation’s narrative as political persecution from a Democratic government that fears him for 2024.

In fact, one risk for Democrats is that Trump – who described himself as a “victim” when he made his announcement on Tuesday – could again rouse his supporters with this argument. On the other hand, last week’s midterm election results suggest he may be more politically vulnerable than many thought, including his Republican party.

What about previous investigations of a presidential candidate? There is recent precedent, albeit in different circumstances.

In 2016, the Obama administration’s Justice Department investigated Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for using a private email server as secretary of state. Despite the best efforts of law enforcement officers involved in the investigation to stay above the fray, the probe has repeatedly slipped into presidential politics — in ways that might not have been foreseen at the outset.

Then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch expressed regret over a chance encounter she had been with Bill Clinton in the final days of the investigation. Former FBI Director James Comey has been accused of damaging Clinton’s candidacy with a detailed public statement why the bureau recommended no charges, and then the reopening of the investigation 11 days before the election.

David Laufman, who oversaw this investigation for the Justice Department as head of the same department now leading the Mar-a-Lago investigation, said there was a “surreal disconnect” between the political maelstrom that accompanies politically charged investigations and the Head down mentality of a prosecutor determined to just get the job done.

“Here we were, conducting a criminal investigation with national security undertones that got splashed on the front page of every newspaper practically every damn day,” Laufman said. “And all we could do was continue to do what we knew needed to be done – to obtain all the relevant facts needed to assess whether it is appropriate to pursue a criminal charge.” recommend.”

He said he believes the investigators who worked at Mar-a-Lago did the same, praising their professionalism under public pressure and even concerns about their personal safety.

In the Clinton case, Comey has said he would consider recommending a separate special counsel to lead the investigation, but ultimately did not do so. The option of a specially appointed prosecutor who would report to Garland also exists here, just as the Trump-era Justice Department appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller to lead the investigation into possible coordination between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia .

It’s not clear how seriously Garland would take this. A department spokesman declined to comment.

Politics aside, ultimately much will depend on the strength of the Justice Department’s case when deciding whether to press charges.

“If the government’s case is exceptionally strong, I think the rule of law will have a dominant weight in the attorney general’s calculus,” Laufman said.

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Follow Eric Tucker at http://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP

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More on investigations related to Donald Trump: https://apnews.com/hub/donald-trump



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