Explainer: Georgia's Charges Against Trump in Context
It is becoming difficult to follow the various prosecutions against former President Donald Trump. Trump is facing both state and federal felony charges from four separate prosecutions that all arose within the last five months. Some of these charges involve the same underlying behavior (overturning the 2020 election results) but not all.
Here is a brief overview of the various felony charges against Trump as things currently stand:
- Four federal felony charges alleging a conspiracy to overturn election results. Federal prosecutors in D.C. have jurisdiction.
- 40 federal felony charges over Trump's handling of classified documents. Federal prosecutors in Florida have jurisdiction.
- 34 state felony charges regarding Trump's alleged hush-money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels. New York state prosecutors have jurisdiction.
Now, Georgia prosecutors have alleged Trump committed 13 state felonies, including one violation of Georgia's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. These charges also relate to Trump's actions seeking to overturn the 2020 election.
A Note About the Number of Charges
While there are nearly 100 separate state and federal felony charges, this number needs to be put in context. Prosecutors often charge for multiple offenses stemming from the same incident. Many first-time criminal defendants are surprised at the number of criminal charges they face for what is commonly thought of as a simple crime, such as DUI. Criminal defense lawyers refer to this as "overcharging." The idea is that the number of charges and penalties can force defendants to consider a plea bargain. It also helps prosecutors to maximize their chance of a guilty verdict on one or more counts. The practice has been criticized, but it is certainly not unique to the former president. It is standard practice throughout the U.S. criminal justice system.
A Note About Double Jeopardy and Dual Sovereignty
The D.C. and Georgia prosecutions involve the same underlying behavior (attempting to overturn the 2020 election results). The reason this does not violate Trump's Fifth Amendment right against double jeopardy is the concept of dual sovereignty. As recently as 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld that a criminal defendant can face both federal and state prosecutions for the same incident. State and federal criminal justice systems are separate, which is the same reason why a president cannot pardon anyone for convictions under state law.
Fraud and Conspiracy to Overturn 2020 Election in Violation of Georgia Law
Trump's most recent indictment involves attempts to overturn the 2020 election. Georgia prosecutors allege that Trump:
- Asked Brad Raffensberger, Georgia's Republican secretary of state, to "find" over 11,000 votes, which would have been enough for him to win the state.
- Harassed an election worker who faced false claims of fraud.
- Attempted to influence Georgia lawmakers to appoint a new slate of electoral college electors favorable to Trump (who would then have appointed Trump against the will of Georgia voters).
- Breached, in early January 2021, the Coffee County voting system to illegally obtain voter data.
Based on these actions and others, Georgia alleges Trump and 18 others violated several Georgia laws. In addition to racketeering, these charges include filing false documents, conspiracy to impersonate a public officer, and solicitation of violation of oath by a public officer.
How Are Georgia's Charges Different Than the Feds'?
The federal criminal charges coming from D.C. are similar to Georgia's. The Department of Justice alleges that Trump engaged in a conspiracy to defraud the United States, among other charges, for actions such as pressuring local officials to find votes for him and creating an "alternative" (i.e. fake) slate of state electors to subvert the will of the voters.
There are two large differences between the federal case Trump is facing and Georgia's. One is that Georgia has targeted Trump's lawyers in the investigation, as well. Rudy Guiliani and Sidney Powell are two of the most well-known of Trump's team of lawyers to be named in the indictment.
Another, related issue, is Georgia's use of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. The Feds chose not to use RICO and only charged Trump. The scope of Georgia's indictment is much broader.
As has been widely reported, federal and state RICO laws were originally passed to combat organized crime. However, for the last several decades RICO has been used against a variety of organizations, (FIFA, for example). RICO is a tool for prosecutors to go after the heads of groups engaged in criminal activity. You do not need to be the head of a mafia outfit to face RICO charges — you don't even have to be part of a formal organization. Here, Georgia alleges that Trump used his lawyers — and his lawyers sometimes in turn used intermediaries — in multiple attempts to engage in election fraud.
Since Trump and his legal team did not exclusively operate in Georgia when attempting to overturn the election, it is theoretically possible, although unlikely, that other states could bring similar charges. Meanwhile, Trump will be defending himself against a wide range of felony charges at the state and federal levels, many of which bring significant penalties including prison time.
Like everyone, the former president is innocent until proven guilty, and has committed to continuing his 2024 presidential campaign. It is possible some or all of these charges could be resolved one way or another before the 2024 election, but that is by no means certain at this point.
- Trump Inquiries in a Nutshell
- Federal Court Finds Trump Most Likely Committed a Felony Following 2020 Election
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