If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Then keep trying.
If Trump’s opponents can’t win in Congress, they hope the courts will bring him to justice anyway. He faces legal challenges even after leaving the presidency.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a Republican, found 10 “episodes” of potential obstruction of justice by Trump. Although he found no direct link between the Trump campaign and Russian interference on his behalf, he did report that Trump tried to interfere with his investigation.
But Mueller went no further, stymied by a Justice Department advisory that a sitting president could not be forced to face criminal charges.
Then Trump tried to get the Ukrainian president to investigate Biden’s son’s alleged involvement in a potentially corrupt business there. He added pressure by delaying promised financial aid for Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion.
House Democrats impeached Trump over his move to Ukraine, though they ignored Mueller’s obstruction of justice findings. Only one Republican senator, Mitt Romney, voted to convict, and the effort failed to secure the two-thirds vote required by the Senate.
Then House Democrats and 10 Republicans accused Trump of instigating the Jan. 6 Capitol uprising aimed at getting Congress to reverse his election defeat.
While GOP senators denounced Trump’s actions, they said they could not condemn him because he was no longer in office. The same Justice Department notice that blocked Mueller made it clear that an impeached federal official could be convicted after leaving office. A majority of the Senate voted to support this view.
Most Republican senators refused to honor that decision. Seven Republicans, including Susan Collins, did so and voted to convict Trump, but the effort again failed.
The impeachment process is political. Conviction hinges on whether the offense is so outrageous that members of the president’s own party will vote against him. The second Senate vote revealed that convicting a president is likely impossible.
When the Senate’s reluctance to act is accompanied by protection from criminal prosecution, a president is likely to enjoy complete immunity.
The ex-president could face a criminal trial, but the only punitive action will likely be the verdict of history. Trump’s two record impeachments could be his main legacy.
But this result is not enough for his opponents. Having failed to convict him when Trump was president, they continue to hope that he will be convicted of a felony. Such a decision could be considered as their justification because it would be judicial and not political.
Democrats had anticipated that the conviction in the second impeachment trial would lead to Trump being barred from holding federal office again. This is why the trial in the Senate began even after the end of his term.
Being found guilty in court now could serve the same purpose. He could be sufficiently discredited that his chances in the election or perhaps even the GOP nomination would be undermined. Much depends on mainstream Republicans and independents.
His supporters may believe that losing in court may not stop him. The party continues to work to limit the Democratic vote in swing states so it can win again with lower GOP turnout.
Many federal cases have been brought against Trump, mostly by professional prosecutors, not political figures. He is unlikely to stand trial for his actions on January 6.
Although Biden should steer clear, he might prefer that federal cases not be pursued for fear that they will appear too political, especially in light of Trump’s investigation into his son, whom the president did not interrupt.
Beyond federal affairs, Trump remains vulnerable. The ex-president is the subject of state investigations completely independent of the federal Department of Justice. Other cases in which he is not directly involved could also produce negative results for him.
Lawyers in New York State and Manhattan are investigating his possible tax evasion and whether he lied to obtain business loans. Georgia is investigating its attempts to influence the presidential vote count through direct contact with its election officials. A conviction in these cases, if taken to court, could be politically damaging.
Among the most serious cases are complaints filed by two companies against some lawyers for Trump and his Fox News allies. Trump endorsed their claims that the companies were operating voting machines replacing Trump’s votes with Biden’s votes. There is no such evidence and the companies claim their business has suffered because of the claims.
If the companies win, the results will further discredit Trump’s false claim that he won the election, his supporters’ justification for the Capitol insurrection. This could harm his political prospects.
The campaign wars between Trump and his opponents continue. It is no longer just a matter of politics. Ultimately, the courts may have as much say in Trump’s presidency and its future as voters.
Gordon L. Weil forMerly has written for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on US Senate and EU staff, headed Maine state agencies, and served as an adviser to Harpswell.