Despite having lost the 2020 presidential election, U.S. President Donald Trump is seemingly doing everything in his power to maintain control of the White House. Surrounded by Republican political leaders who are bolstering his lies about widespread voter fraud, the president has refused to concede to President-elect Joe Biden, and has kept himself busy by replacing senior Pentagon officials with loyalists.
While the president’s apparent attempt to shore up his influence with military leaders is certainly dangerous, few experts believe he is likely to stage an actual coup. Instead, consensus is that Trump will be leaving office one way or another and that even he knows that. What Trump also knows, though — and why he is perhaps so desperately clinging to the fantasy that he won — is that, when he does leave, he could face prison time. And it's that risk of prosecution looming over him that is making Trump tighten his iron grip on the presidency.
Indeed, once the U.S. president leaves office on January 20, he will be vulnerable to a dozen legal investigations and civil suits involving his business practices, as well as his taxes. He is under investigation for insurance fraud, criminal tax evasion, grand larceny, and a scheme to defraud, according to The New York Times. He could also face legal trouble for campaign finance violations and bribery. Not only does Trump face a number of legal battles, he also owes millions of dollars in income taxes, real estate debts, and other loans, The New Yorker reports. “It’s the office of the Presidency that’s keeping him from prison and the poorhouse,” Yale history professor Timothy Snyder told the outlet.
If Trump does end up in prison as a result of his various civil and criminal legal transgressions, he will join the ranks of several of his former associates who have been charged or imprisoned under his administration.
Six of the president’s other allies (at one time or another) — his former lawyer, Michael Cohen; former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort; former campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos; Trump adviser, Roger Stone; and Manafort associates, Alex van der Zwaan and Rick Gates — faced sentences ranging from 45 days in jail to seven-and-a-half years in prison resulting from special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump’s first national security adviser Michael Flynn is awaiting sentencing in the same investigation.
Still, despite so many others around him having faced legal consequences, the likelihood of Trump himself spending any time behind bars is probably low, at least based on historical precedent. No former U.S. presidents have spent time in prison or jail — even including Richard Nixon, who received a pardon from President Gerald R. Ford in 1974 after resigning in disgrace from the presidency for obstruction of justice and abuse of power in the Watergate scandal. According to The New York Times, Ford wrote in his pardon that “the tranquillity to which this nation has been restored by the events of recent weeks could be irreparably lost” if Nixon had faced criminal charges.
Further, when the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Bill Clinton in 1998 on one charge of perjury and another for obstruction of justice — for abusing his power by initiating a sexual relationship with a 22-year-old intern — it was possible that Clinton could have eventually faced criminal charges. While he was not removed from office — the Senate voted to acquit him — Clinton could have had more consequences upon the completion of his second term. But, no criminal charges were ultimately filed.
Things might be different with Trump, though. There’s a chance he could face legal action for his federal, criminal, and civil crimes once he leaves office and is no longer afforded the protections of immunity from prosecution that are granted to the president. When Mueller offered his ruling in the Russia investigation, former federal prosecutors stated that Trump’s conduct would “result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.” Meanwhile, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris stated in 2019 that, if elected president, it was her belief that the Justice Department “would have no choice and that they should” pursue charges of obstruction against Trump. And what do you know, the California Senator will make her way to the White House early next year.
It's certainly interesting that, after having spent the last several years threatening his political opponents with jail time, and encouraging his followers to chant "Lock Her Up" about Hillary Clinton, Trump might be facing prison right now. Whether or not he will actually go — or even face charges — remains unknown, but Trump sure seems scared about the prospect. In recent weeks, the president has reportedly expressed his concerns over ongoing investigations and the potential for new ones to his advisers, The New York Times reports. Perhaps that’s why he’s spent the last three years asking aides whether he could preemptively pardon himself and his family. Irony sure can be sweet.