Essential Politics: Could Trump really go to prison?

Former President Trump takes the stage at a rally in Youngstown, Ohio, on Sept. 17.
Former President Trump takes the stage at a rally in Youngstown, Ohio, on Sept. 17.
(Tom E. Puskar / Associated Press)

Since Donald Trump formally got involved in politics, he has unabashedly disregarded longstanding political norms. He refused to partake in the longstanding tradition of presidential candidates releasing their tax returns, made racist comments while running for office and in the White House, and reportedly flushed sensitive records down the toilet.

Trump’s unorthodox and outlandish behavior made him a villain for the left — a majority of Democrats twice voted to impeach him and many liberal candidates wooed voters by bashing him. On the right, however, the former president’s actions made him a god of sorts to key GOP voters and enabled him to cement his control over the Republican party.

Now, though, Trump is facing serious criminal investigations and civil lawsuits. Trump has previously bragged about dodging numerous lawsuits as a private citizen. In the early years of Trump’s term in office, a special counsel investigated Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and potential links among Trump, his allies and Russian officials, but decided not to charge him with any crimes.


This is the first time since Trump won in 2016 that he has faced serious investigations without being able to claim executive privilege. The lack of this legal protection would suggest that Trump may be more likely to suffer consequences for his actions. But is that true? What is the likelihood of these investigations amounting to anything? Could Trump actually face jail time?

Hello, I’m Erin B. Logan. I’m a reporter for the Los Angeles Times covering national politics and the Biden-Harris administration. Today, we are going to talk about Trump and his legal exposure.

Trump is facing four critical investigations. He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

The first is a Justice Department probe into potential violations of the Espionage Act. After leaving the White House, Trump took hundreds of documents that contained classified information with him to his Florida residence. Federal officials spent over a year trying to retrieve those materials. After it was clear that the government was unlikely to be able to secure the documents’ safe return, federal prosecutors obtained an unprecedented search warrant. The FBI searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence.

The Justice Department has also said it will include Trump in its criminal probe of the attempt to overturn to 2020 presidential election.

In New York, Atty. Gen. Letitia James last week sued Trump and his company over allegations of fraud. Trump, James said at a news conference, had “falsely inflated his net worth by billions of dollars to unjustly enrich himself, and cheat the system, thereby cheating all of us.” James said the civil investigation uncovered multiple potential crimes, including insurance fraud, conspiracy and falsifying business records.

James said she referred these alleged crimes to federal prosecutors and the Internal Revenue Service.

In Georgia, a special grand jury is looking into whether Trump and his allies illegally interfered with the 2020 election. Before Congress certified federal election results, Trump phoned Georgia Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and implored him to “find” enough votes to undo the victory of then-candidate Joe Biden. Fulton County Dist. Atty. Fani Willis seated a special grand jury to look into Trump’s and his allies’ actions to determine if a crime was committed.

But could he go to jail?

Though Trump may face prison time if convicted of certain crimes, it’s unclear, and in some cases unlikely, that he will ever sit behind bars.

Though some of the alleged crimes are clear-cut, it’s uncertain if prosecutors have the “political appetite to pursue charges,” Anthony Michael Kreis, a political scientist and law professor at Georgia State University College of Law, told The Times.


An indictment against the former president would be unprecedented and prosecutors would worry about appearing politically motivated, Kreis said. The criminal referrals James made from the civil lawsuit are perhaps the most “precarious,” he added.

James has made no secret of her desire to go after Trump and his family for potential wrongdoing. “That may be something federal prosecutors won’t want to touch with a 10-foot pole,” Kreis said. “They don’t want the former president to get away with anything he’s done, but at the same time, they want to avoid the appearance of being overtly political or seeking retribution.”

Kreis said federal prosecutors likely have enough evidence to go after Trump for his involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection, but “that has a similar political dynamic.”

Perhaps the greatest vulnerability Trump has is the investigation into his procurement of sensitive government records. Trump illegally holding onto classified documents is more black and white than the insurrection, Kreis said. “Anyone who did something remotely similar would have already been charged.”

The same is true in Georgia. Trump was “central to what is appearing to be an organized conspiracy to overthrow the election and pressure officials into committing election fraud,” Kreis said.

The principle at stake is whether powerful people should get away with crimes just because they’re politically active.Prosecutors are contending with hyperpartisanship when deciding whether to devote resources to an investigation that might “shock the political ecosystem,” Kreis said.

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The latest from the campaign trail

—Across the country, election clerks have spent the last two years waging an information and public relations battle to restore faith in elections, Times writer Arit John reported. Election workers are doing more TV interviews and redoubling their efforts to explain the exhaustive steps they take to prevent fraud and run secure elections. But as the 2022 primaries showed, some of the key personnel involved — poll workers and poll challengers — still actively doubt the results of the 2020 presidential race, believing baseless allegations of fraud perpetuated by Trump and his allies.

—Across the national political landscape, the Capitol siege on Jan. 6 has been a minor subplot. President Biden and the congressional panel investigating the attack have tried to elevate it in the public’s consciousness as a do-or-die moment for democracy, Times writer Melanie Mason reported. Still, there is little sign that the riot, along with the continued denialism about Trump’s 2020 loss and the precariousness of future elections, will mobilize people to the polls or determine a swing voter’s choice. Punditry about this dynamic tends to be blunt: Americans are moving on, Americans don’t care. But interviews with residents of California Rep. Mike Garcia’s district, as well as pollsters, strategists and political scientists, paint a more complex picture.

—New Mexico’s Republican nominee for secretary of state has removed an online flier that offered the chance to receive a firearm in return for a $100 donation to her campaign, the Associated Press reported. The gun “giveaway” offer on a Facebook campaign page for candidate Audrey Trujillo appeared to run afoul of a state prohibition on the use of raffles to raise funds for an individual running for office. Contacted Thursday by the Associated Press, Trujillo said that she was removing the gun giveaway flier out of concern it might be out of compliance. She said her campaign would offer refunds for any possible contributions linked to the gun offer.

— From columnist Mark Z. Barabak: Trump isn’t on the ballot, but he continues to loom unusually large over the political landscape as a new poll predicts high voter turnout in November.

—Governor’s races often are overshadowed by the fight for control of Congress during midterm elections. But this fall, the nation’s political future hangs just as much on governors’ mansions as it does on Capitol Hill, the Associated Press reported. With abortion rights, immigration policies and democracy itself in the balance, both parties are entering the final weeks before the Nov. 8 election prepared to spend unprecedented amounts of money to win top state offices. Those elected will be in power for the 2024 election, when they could influence voting laws as well as certification of the outcome. And their powers over abortion rights increased greatly when the U.S. Supreme Court in June left the question to states to decide.

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The view from Washington

— Sen. Joe Manchin III conceded defeat Tuesday and asked Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to pull his permitting proposal as it became increasingly clear that both parties would reject his bid to speed up government approval of new energy projects, Freddy Brewster reported. Groups including the Sunrise Movement and Greenpeace USA had warned that the West Virginia Democrat’s legislation would be a boon for the fossil fuel industry.

—As questions continue to swirl about the 11,000 records the FBI recovered during its raid of Trump’s Florida home, Congress has asked the National Archives to provide it with a preliminary report detailing what Trump presidential records might still be missing, Times writer Sarah D. Wire reported. The National Archives and Records Administration hasn’t formally responded. But, given the realities of what goes into processing presidential records, and questions about the quality of record keeping in the Trump White House, experts told The Times the archives might not have a firm grasp of what is missing for years — if ever.

—Biden on Monday announced a new initiative that would eventually allow consumers to see a more complete price on airline tickets — including baggage and change fees — before they buy, as the White House continues to search for ways to lower costs for Americans amid persistently high inflation, the Associated Press reported. The White House said the proposed rule from the Transportation Department would prevent airlines from hiding the “true cost” of airline tickets, which would help consumers save money upfront and encourage more competition among airlines to offer better fares.

—Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-San Pedro) has been privately talking to members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus about becoming its next chair, Times writer Nolan D. McCaskill reported. The 36-member group is currently led by Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Coachella), but the caucus chairs usually only serve a single two-year term. Barragán is the group’s No. 2 leader and chairs its affiliated nonprofit, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, a group that aims to develop the next generation of Latino leaders.

The view from California

—Many questions over the logistics of a state reparations program for Black Californians remain unanswered, Times writer Kevin Rector reported. But panel discussions Friday and Saturday at the California Science Center in South Los Angeles drew into clearer focus the heavy task of the nine-member panel: to create a program that could greatly affect the lives and socioeconomic fortunes of hundreds of thousands of people..

—Despite a tenure that has focused on early education, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill Sunday that would have made kindergarten mandatory in California, Times writer Mackenzie Mays reported. In his veto message, Newsom said that though the intent to make kindergarten compulsory is “laudable,” it would cost the state up to $268 million each year. That amount is not accounted for in the state’s record-breaking budget and spending plan, he added. Dozens of school districts and education groups supported the bill, pointing to academic setbacks experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic as parents opted out of kindergarten to avoid distance learning woes.

—Newsom announced Sunday that he signed legislation to crack down on rampant vehicle catalytic converter theft by making it illegal for recyclers to buy the valuable car part from anyone other than the legal owner or a licensed dealer, Times writer Hannah Wiley reported. Lawmakers this year introduced a suite of bills to address an alarming increase in brazen thefts of catalytic converters, the anti-pollution devices in cars that contain valuable metals such as rhodium, platinum and palladium. The often untraceable parts are easy to saw off from a vehicle, making them an attractive target for those hoping to make a quick buck at a scrap yard.

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