In late March, following years of investigations and allegations, Donald Trump became the first former president in United States history to be criminally indicted, with Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg charging the once-and-potentially-future president with dozens of felony counts for falsifying business records related to alleged hush money payments concealing his alleged affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels.
The charges, which Trump has steadfastly denied, are not simply an historic first. They are also the tip of a larger iceberg of legal peril for the former president as he mounts another bid for the White House in 2024. Speaking to a New York courtroom just one month later, longtime Elle magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll declared that "Donald Trump raped me," kicking off a separate defamation trial that comes decades after she alleges Trump assaulted her in a Manhattan department store. As with the Daniels charges, Trump has publicly maintained his innocence.
These two cases, at the moment each working their respective ways through the nation's labyrinthine court system, have reopened an ongoing debate over Trump's many vulnerabilities — both legal and electoral — for the 2024 presidential election. At the same time, Trump has already begun using his legal peril as a springboard for a renewed fundraising push to supporters, even as rivals and detractors seize upon his potentially criminal vulnerability as the 2024 campaign begins to intensify.
While Trump has deftly avoided (and in some cases even utilized) lawsuits and threats of criminal action for his own purposes in the past, he is now for the first time in his career facing a very real possibility of being found both guilty and liable for a host of allegations: some related, some disparate, and all serious.
These are the four major judicial challenges currently threatening Donald Trump.
Author E. Jean Carroll's lawsuits over alleged 1990s rape
Trump's most immediate legal threat comes from former Elle magazine advice columnist E. Jean Carroll, who alleges the former president raped her in a Bergdorf Goodman's department store dressing room during the mid-1990s. Trump has denied the allegations, calling Carroll "not my type" in 2019, and then a "hoax" and "con job" three years later. Carroll's suit, filed in federal court since she and Trump live in separate states, is currently at trial in Manhattan. While Carroll has sued for defamation twice, following each of Trump's comments, her second suit also carries a battery claim following a newly enacted New York state law expanding the statute of limitations for alleged victims of sexual assault to seek damages. Trump attorney Joseph Tacopina has pushed back on both Carroll's claims, as well as against the court itself — in early May Tacopina file a motion to declare a mistrial, alleging "pervasive unfair and prejudicial rulings," against his client, even as he proceeded with cross-examining Carroll over factual details of her claims, such as her inability to recall the precise date of the alleged rape.
Carroll is requesting Trump be declared liable for battery and defamation, and has asked for an unspecified monetary award for damages.
The Stormy Daniels hush money payments
There's an irony of sorts to the fact that Trump's first criminal indictment is perhaps also his most mundane; he stands accused of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, related to his having paid $130,000 to adult film star Stormy Daniels in exchange for her silence on their alleged sexual relationship during the 2016 presidential election. Prosecutors are also exploring whether there were similar payments made to other paramours. In particular, The New York Times reports, prosecutors under Bragg are looking into whether the then-candidate "falsely accounted" for that money when he reimbursed his former attorney Michael Cohen, who facilitated the transaction.
Moreover, because the alleged hush money payment occurred within the context of the 2016 election, prosecutors are also examining whether election laws were broken as well. Separately, although relatedly, Daniels was ordered to pay Trump more than $100,000 for legal fees in April, after she unsuccessfully sued him for defamation in 2018.
While the Daniels hush money payments may or may not be proven to directly relate to electoral politics, Trump faces a potential indictment in a separate district attorney's investigation that is inextricable from his time as president.
2020 election subversion in Georgia
It's been nearly a year since Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fanni Willis empaneled a grand jury to investigate alleged efforts by Trump and his allies to manipulate voting results in the 2020 presidential election in the hopes of overturning his electoral loss in that state. In that time jurors have heard from 75 witnesses, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and attorneys John Eastman and Jenna Ellis, while they probed incidents such as Trump's personal call to Georgia's Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger demanding he "find" more than 11,000 votes in his favor.
While Willis has not announced any official charges from that investigation yet, a series of heavily redacted documents released in mid-February pointed to a "majority" of grand jury members recommending prosecutors pursue "appropriate indictments" for alleged perjury committed by witnesses. Jurors also found that "no widespread fraud took place in the Georgia 2020 presidential election that could result in overturning that election," undercutting Trump's rationale for involving himself in the state's electoral count. In a letter from Willis to law enforcement officials regarding potential security arrangements, Willis predicted that any charges her office might make would come "during Fulton County Superior Court's fourth term of court, which will begin on July 11, 2023, and conclude on September 1, 2023."
Speaking with the New York Times later that month, jury forewoman Emily Kohrs confirmed that the number of people recommended for charges was "not a short list," and that "You're not going to be shocked" by any of the names.
Federal investigation into Jan. 6 and classified documents
Following months of stymied negotiations between the National Archives and Trump over the latter's unlawful possession of presidential documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate, FBI agents dramatically raided the former president's home in Aug. 2022, uncovering a host of classified material allegedly including state secrets regarding both China and Iran. In the wake of that raid, and the ensuing public furor, Attorney General Merrick Garland named former Justice Department Prosecutor Jack Smith as a special counsel to spearhead the DOJ's investigation into both the document handling, as well as Trump's role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
In the five months since being named special counsel, Smith has compelled testimony from a number of figures including former Vice President Mike Pence — who appeared before Smith's grand jury in late April — while simultaneously suggesting that Trump may have misled attorneys over how he had handled and kept classified documents in his home.
While the exact timeline and scope of Smith's dual pursuits remain unclear, he is working under a congressional recommendation made by the House Select Committee to Investigate Jan. 6 that the Justice Department charge Trump with obstruction of an official proceeding; conspiracy to defraud the United States; conspiracy to make false statements; and inciting, assisting, or aiding or comforting an insurrection.
Update May 3, 2023: This article has been updated throughout to reflect the latest developments