Mon. Dec 5th, 2022

Donald Trump’s early announcement of his third bid for the White House will not shield the former president from criminal investigations he already faces as an ordinary citizen, leaving him legally and politically exposed as he seeks the 2024 Republican nomination.

The Ministry of Justice is continuing its investigations. And with the midterm elections now largely over and the 2024 presidential campaign still months away from getting underway in earnest, federal prosecutors have plenty of time to continue their work even as Trump hits the campaign trail.

“I don’t think the Department will hesitate because Trump nominated and anointed himself as the front-runner in the 2024 election,” said former Justice Department prosecutor Michael Weinstein. “I just think they’re going to see it as him trying to game the system as he’s done very successfully in the courts,” and they’re ready for him to “hit back.”

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Trump enters the race facing federal investigations into his attempts to overturn the 2020 election results and the hoarding of top-secret government documents at his Florida estate — plus a separate state probe in Georgia. The Mar-a-Lago investigation has moved particularly quickly, with prosecutors this month granting immunity to a close Trump ally to secure his testimony before a federal grand jury. Justice Department lawyers in that investigation say they have gathered evidence of possible crimes involving not only jamming, but also the deliberate withholding of national defense information.

It remains unclear whether anyone will be charged, nor the timetable for a decision. But former officials say the best way to ensure the outcome is seen as flawless is to conduct a by-the-book investigation that shows no special favor or wrongdoing because of Trump’s former high office.

“The public will have the most faith in what you do, and you will achieve the most successful results if you treat Donald Trump like any other American,” said Matthew Miller, who served as a Justice Department spokesman under former Attorney General Eric Drač.

Click to play video: 'Donald Trump Announces Candidacy for US President in 2024.'

Donald Trump announces his candidacy for the presidency of the USA in 2024

Current Attorney General Merrick Garland suggested as much, saying last summer in response to questions about Trump and the Jan. 6 investigation that “no person is above the law.” Asked in a televised interview in July how a potential Trump candidacy might affect the department, Garland replied, “We will hold accountable anyone who is criminally responsible for attempting to interfere with the transfer — a legitimate, lawful transfer — of power from one administration to another.”

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An investigation into any elected official or candidate for office almost always prompts political speculation. Justice Department protocol cautions prosecutors against taking overt actions immediately before an election, but that’s more of a standard convention than a hard-and-fast rule. And the presidential fight in 2024 is two years away.

However, it is not easy to research a former president or a current candidate. This is especially true in the case of Trump, who has spent his presidency attacking his own Justice Department and railing against his own appointed attorneys general. He had already criticized the FBI for the Mar-a-Lago search in August, using the episode to raise funds from supporters.

Now, with his official candidacy, he and his supporters will try to reframe the narrative of the investigation as political persecution by a Democratic administration that fears him in 2024.

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In fact, one risk for Democrats is that Trump — who declared himself a “victim” during his announcement Tuesday — could reinvigorate his supporters with that argument. On the other hand, the results of last week’s midterm elections suggest that he may be more politically vulnerable than many thought, including his own Republican Party.

What about past investigations of presidential candidates? There is a recent precedent, albeit under different circumstances.

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In 2016, the Obama administration’s Justice Department investigated Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server as secretary of state. Despite the efforts of law enforcement officials working on the investigation to stay above the fray, the investigation has repeatedly become entangled in presidential politics — in ways that may not have been foreseen when it began.

Then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch expressed regret for a chance encounter with Bill Clinton in the final days of the investigation. Former FBI Director James Comey was blamed for hurting Clinton’s candidacy by giving a detailed public explanation of why the bureau did not recommend indictment and then for reopening the investigation 11 days before the election.

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Republicans are mulling disappointing midterm elections as Trump’s 2024 announcement approaches

David Laufman, who oversaw that investigation for the Justice Department as head of the same division now handling the Mar-a-Lago investigation, said there was a “surreal disconnect” between the political maelstrom that accompanies politically charged investigations and the head-down mentality of a prosecutor determined to just get the job done. .

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“Here we were, conducting a criminal investigation with a national security twist in a way that was practically splashed across the front page of every newspaper every freaking day,” Laufman said. “And all we could do was continue to do what we knew needed to be done – obtain all the relevant facts necessary to make judgments about whether it was appropriate to recommend criminal charges.”

He said he believed the investigators working at Mar-a-Lago were the same, praising their professionalism amid public pressure and even concerns for their personal safety.

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In the Clinton case, Comey said he considered recommending a separate special counsel to lead the investigation, though he ultimately did not. The option of a specially appointed prosecutor to answer to Garland exists here, just as the Trump-era Justice Department appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller to lead an investigation into potential coordination between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia.

It’s not clear how seriously Garland would consider it. A spokesman for the ministry declined to comment.

Politics aside, much will ultimately depend on the strength of the Justice Department’s case in deciding whether to press charges.

“If the government’s case is extremely strong, I think the rule of law will carry the dominant weight in the attorney general’s calculus,” Laufman said.

© 2022 The Canadian Press