WASHINGTON – Hush-money payments. Classified records. And now, his efforts to overturn the 2020 election that led to the Capitol attack. Already facing criminal cases in New York and Florida, Donald Trump is in increasing legal peril as investigations into his struggle to cling to power after his election loss appear to be coming to a head.
A target letter sent to Trump by special counsel Jack Smith suggests he may soon be indicted on new federal charges, adding to the remarkable situation of a former president up against possible prison time while vying to reclaim the White House as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination.
Smith's wide-ranging probe into the chaotic weeks between Trump's election loss and his supporters' attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, seems to be nearing an end just as another case could be on the horizon. A grand jury that was sworn in this month in Georgia will likely consider whether to charge Trump and his Republican allies for their efforts to reverse his election loss in the state.
Trump has denied wrongdoing in all the cases and dismissed the prosecutions as a malign effort to hurt his 2024 campaign.
Here's a look at the Jan. 6 investigation, Trump's legal cases and what could happen next:
WHAT IS THE FOCUS OF THE JAN. 6 PROBE?
The team led by Smith, who was appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland in November, has questioned a host of former White House officials, Trump allies, lawyers and state election officials both in voluntary interviews and before the grand jury that has been meeting behind closed doors in Washington. Those who have testified before the grand jury — which would ultimately hand down any indictment — include Trump's Vice President Mike Pence, who has spoken extensively in public about the former president's efforts to pressure him into rejecting President Joe Biden's electoral victory.
Smith's team appears to be interested in a late night Dec. 18, 2020, White House meeting one aide has called “unhinged” in which Trump's private lawyers suggested he order the U.S. military to seize state voting machines in an unprecedented effort to pursue his false claims of voter fraud. In videos shown by the U.S. House Committee that investigated the Jan. 6 attack, one White House lawyer said he thought the idea was “nuts.” Judges — including some appointed by Trump — uniformly rejected his claims of voter fraud.
Smith has also questioned witnesses about schemes by Trump associates to enlist electors in battleground states to sign certificates claiming that Trump — instead of Biden — had won their states. The fake electors' certificates were mailed to the National Archives and Congress, where some Republicans used them to try to justify delaying or blocking certification of the election.
Smith's team has also shown interest in the story of a Georgia election worker, Ruby Freeman, who along with her daughter has recounted living in fear following death threats after Trump and his allies falsely accused them of pulling fraudulent ballots from a suitcase in Georgia. That interest is according to a person familiar with the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing criminal probe.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
It's unclear when Smith's investigation may wrap up. Trump said he was invited to appear before the grand jury this week, though targets of investigations don't have to testify and rarely agree to do so. The grand jury, which meets in secret, would ultimately vote on whether there is enough evidence to charge him with a crime. Federal grand juries are made up of about 16 to 23 people, and at least 12 must agree in order to hand down an indictment.
Among the potential charges legal experts have said Trump could face are conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of an official proceeding: Congress’ certification of Biden's electoral victory. Hundreds of the more than 1,000 people accused of federal crimes in the Jan. 6 riot have been charged with the obstruction offense, which carries up to 20 years in prison.
If charged in the Jan. 6 case, Trump could face a challenging jury pool in overwhelmingly Democratic Washington, whose residents — many of whom work on Capitol Hill — had a front-row seat to the chaos that unfolded after Trump urged his supporters to “fight like hell.”
Many Jan. 6 rioters have tried unsuccessfully to get their trials moved out of the nation's capital, saying Trump supporters can't get a fair trial there. Only two defendants have been acquitted of all charges after trials, and those were trials decided by a judge, not a jury. In the most serious Jan. 6 cases brought so far, juries have convicted the leaders of two far-right extremist groups — the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys — of seditious conspiracy and other charges for what prosecutors described as plots to block the transfer of power from Trump to Biden. More than 600 other Jan. 6 defendants have pleaded guilty to federal crimes.
WHAT’S GOING ON WITH TRUMP’S OTHER CASES?
Trump pleaded not guilty last month to 37 federal felony counts accusing him of illegally hoarding classified records at his Florida Mar-a-Lago estate and rejecting government demands to give them back. A judge in that case heard arguments on Tuesday over whether that trial — which would take place in Florida — should happen before or after the 2024 election. While prosecutors are seeking a December trial date, Trump's lawyers have pushed for an indefinite delay, arguing he can't get a fair trial while he's campaigning for president.
In New York state court, a trial is scheduled to begin in March — in the thick of primary season — in another Trump case brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg that alleges a scheme to bury allegations of extramarital affairs that arose during his first White House campaign. Trump has pleaded not guilty in that case to 34 felony counts of falsifying internal business records at his private company about a hush-money payoff to porn actor Stormy Daniels. Trump was trying to get the case moved to federal court, but a judge ruled against that on Wednesday.
In Georgia, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who has been investigating Trump and his allies for their efforts to overturn his election loss in that state, is expected to present her case before one of two grand juries seated earlier this month. Willis has suggested that any indictments would likely come in August. A separate special grand jury — which didn't have charging power and dissolved in January — submitted a report with recommendations to Willis. Though most of that report remains under wraps for now, the panel’s foreperson has said without naming names that the special grand jury recommended charging multiple people.
Meanwhile, in Michigan on Tuesday, the state's attorney general filed felony charges, including forgery against 16 Republicans who acted as fake electors for Trump in 2020, accusing them of submitting false certificates that said they were legitimate electors despite Biden’s victory there.
Richer reported from Boston.
More on Donald Trump-related investigations: https://apnews.com/hub/donald-trump