HomeTop StoriesHow Donald Trump was able to run his election campaign from prison

How Donald Trump was able to run his election campaign from prison

Trump has a digi on the front

It is unprecedented for a former US president to face federal criminal charges. It is inconceivable that Donald J. Trump would spend the rest of his life in prison as a result. And it’s ridiculous that, from behind bars, he could still run in the 2024 presidential election — and stand a chance of winning.

Yet everything about Trump’s political career is unprecedented, unthinkable and ridiculous. The Donald’s only rule is that he breaks all the rules.

Trump was impeached twice during his tenure. He has undergone numerous investigations, but has always managed to escape the shackles of the law. This time, however, he has been charged with crimes that prosecutors say have struck at the “foundation” of American democracy: illegally attempting to undermine the 2020 election.

At the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse in Washington D.C., the former president pleaded not guilty on Thursday to four charges related to the so-called Stop the Steal campaign and the January 6, 2021 storming of the US Capitol — including conspiracy to defraud the United States and conspiracy against voting rights. The most serious charges carry a maximum prison term of 20 years.

All of this comes on top of a prosecution from the Justice Department, which has charged him with 37 counts of alleged mishandling of classified documents he kept at his home in Mar-a-Lago, Florida; charges that, if convicted, could also lead to prison terms of 10 to 20 years. For a 76-year-old, that means life. If found guilty, Trump’s only path to freedom would likely be to win the presidential election from behind bars and then pardon himself again in the White House.

Again, that sounds completely unbelievable. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. And there is nothing in the US Constitution that prevents anyone charged or convicted from holding or holding office.

Of course, a criminal conviction of Trump would pose some immediate practical challenges: Given his position and his notoriety, where on earth could he be safely imprisoned? Every living president is entitled to security from the Secret Service; should Trump’s special agents join him in prison?

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A protester Tuesday at the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr.  United States Courthouse in Miami

A protester outside the courthouse in Miami on Tuesday – Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg

Then there are the political implications, which are even more inscrutable. It seems unlikely that Trump would give up just because he has been found guilty. On the contrary, he and his supporters would only radicalize further. His pre-2024 campaign messages are already almost apocalyptic in tone. He promises voters he will be “your retaliation” against the “Deep State,” by which he means the network of national security and intelligence agencies, politicized judges, and nefarious journalists seeking to bring him, and therefore America, down.

His more hardline supporters lined up outside the Washington courthouse yesterday, holding campaign flags that read “Trump for President ’24,” “Finish the Wall,” and “Trump Won.” Things can get ugly fast.

Trump’s voters agree with his assessment that he is the victim of a “witch hunt.” He is already facing criminal charges in New York for falsifying business records and earlier this year a court in Manhattan found him “civilly liable” for sexual assault. Yet his presidential campaign never stops and – a curious dynamic – the bigger his legal troubles get, the more support he gains among Republican voters.

His political opponents, the Democrats, who run the Justice Department, are quite optimistic about this situation: they believe that while Trump fans will love him no matter what, the majority will always find him and his MAGA movement too toxic to to suffer. His 2016 election, the argument goes, was an aberration: Trumpism failed in both the 2020 presidential election and the 2018 and 2022 midterm elections.


Gray: “Trump’s acolytes like to point out that anyone else, faced with the legal and media onslaught he’s faced, would be a broken man — but not Donald.”

Yet part of Trump’s appeal, especially among evangelicals, has always been his messianic tone to voters who feel the system is rigged against them. He likes to share an online meme that says, “In reality, they’re not after me. It’s you. I’m just getting in the way.” Trump’s acolytes and campaign talking heads like to point out that anyone else, faced with the legal and media onslaught he’s faced, would be a broken man — but not Donald.

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If he went to prison, even if the evidence against him was damning, all his supporters would feel was that he was right. In 2016, he famously boasted, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” In 2024, he could be campaigning for re-election as commander-in-chief while imprisoned as a serious threat to national security, and his admirers would only admire him more.

But it’s not just die-hard fans who prefer Donald, the would-be convict, to the Justice Department. The idea of ​​the righteous rebel, maverick or outlaw speaks to something deep in the freedom-loving American psyche – think of Jesse James, James Dean or the abolitionist John Brown. Americans tend to be more cynical about high-level accusations than, say, the British, and so the stigma of being accused is less strong. “If you’re not charged, you’re not invited,” for example, goes a saying among partying New Yorkers.

That skepticism stems in part from the fact that the more democratic American legal system has been more politicized for centuries than in Britain. Naked political people stand for and win elections as judges, prosecutors or other positions of legal authority, and the Justice Department is headed by the man in the White House, even though it is still theoretically bound by the Constitution .

Trump supporters outside the courthouse Tuesday

Trump supporters outside the courthouse on Tuesday – Nathan Howard/Bloomberg

This inevitably leads to a widespread sense of bias. For example, the trial of Trump in New York was led by Democratic District Attorney, Alvin Bragg, and overseen by Democratic Attorney General, Letitia James, both of whom are longstanding and outspoken critics of the politician they are trying to convict .

An incarcerated Trump would play on America’s built-in distrust of the justice system. Convinced of his innocence, and considering himself Christ-like in his willingness to suffer for humanity, he will not be embarrassed by a “mugshot” of the perpetrator – in fact, he will use it as a badge of honor. His campaign team will distribute the image in their promotional materials.

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We’ve seen this before, albeit never with a man who occupied the Oval Office. In 1920, Eugene V Debs, a socialist, ran for president behind bars and won nearly a million votes, a staggering number for a man of his radicalism. He had been brutally imprisoned under the Sedition Act of 1918 for his opposition to American involvement in World War I.

His backers took advantage of his renegade status by handing out photos of him in convict denim and lapel pins for the campaign that read “Prisoner 9653.” “I thank the capitalist masters for putting me here,” Debs said from prison. “They know where I belong under their criminal and corrupting system. It’s the only compliment they could give me.” It’s not impossible to imagine Trump saying something similar in prison, even if he used the word “globalists” instead of “capitalists.”

Unlike Debs, Trump would be a major party candidate. And many Republicans, even Trump fans, might consider voting for a convict a step too far. After a flurry of media attention following his imprisonment, he is said to have struggled to campaign. The legendary rallies would be without Trump. He would probably ask his children, Eric, Donald Junior and Ivanka, to represent him and spread his message across the country. Ivanka, who is widely believed to have political ambitions of her own, might shy away from submitting to a “jailbreak” campaign in 2024. Trump’s family ties would be tested like never before.

Trump's daughters Tiffany and Ivanka

Trump’s daughters Tiffany and Ivanka – Getty

Depending on the terms of his sentence, Trump may not even have a cell phone or regular access to the internet.

The 2024 election, therefore, could turn out to be an even weirder version of 2020, when Joe Biden effectively campaigned locked in his Delaware basement and won. That was the year of the peak of the Covid panic and the Black Lives Matter riots, in which a sense of madness prevailed and American cities were burned for weeks. If Trump is jailed, you can expect American democracy to get even crazier.

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