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What a Donald Trump 2024 Campaign From Prison Could Look Like

Newsweek 3/22/2023 Darragh Roche
  • Former President Trump has predicted that he could be arrested as early as this week.
  • There is no legal barrier to a person running for president while incarcerated.
  • Running from prison would pose significant logistical challenges and open the campaign to ridicule, political scientists tell Newsweek.

Former President Donald Trump is facing the possibility of criminal indictment in New York as he begins his official campaign for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

Trump predicted over the weekend that he could be arrested as early as Tuesday as a result of a probe by the Manhattan District Attorney's office into an alleged 2016 hush money payment to adult film actor Stormy Daniels.

The Tuesday date did not prove accurate—but it came as Trump plans to hold his first official 2024 campaign rally in Waco, Texas, on Saturday, and as he faces other investigations that could lead to potential charges.

Special Counsel Jack Smith is probing Trump's actions relating to the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot, as well as his alleged mishandling of classified documents discovered at his Mar-a-Lago residence, while a grand jury in Georgia is examining whether or not Trump pushed for 2020 election results to be overturned there.

The ongoing probes raise the question about whether Trump could be end up behind bars as the 2024 campaign begins in earnest. In the New York case, he could be facing up to four years in prison if he is convicted of a felony. Newsweek reached out to Trump's spokesperson by email for comment.

There is no legal barrier to someone running for president from prison. During the 1920 presidential election, Socialist Eugene V. Debs famously ran while imprisoned and won more than 900,000 votes but no Electoral College votes.

Trump, who has repeatedly denied the accusations, has not been charged with any crime and a potential prison sentence remains hypothetical. Political scientists who spoke to Newsweek said that an indictment would change Trump's political strategy but a prison term may not prevent him from running in 2024.

Handcuffing Trump

It's not possible to say that Trump will even be indicted, despite the former president's own prediction. And even if he is, that doesn't necessarily mean he'll be convicted.

"I expect that Trump will not be campaigning from prison," David A. Bateman, an associate professor of government at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, told Newsweek.

"Unless he is convicted before or during the primaries or before November 2024, which is not guaranteed given the length of time to trial and the trial itself, the most likely effect of an indictment will not be to disrupt his campaigning but to shift strategies and focus," he said.

There has been speculation about whether Trump could be placed in handcuffs and possibly photographed wearing them, but Bateman suggested that was unlikely.

"If he is indicted, he will probably negotiate his turning himself in—he might even be able to avoid appearing in person in New York if his lawyers can negotiate for an online appearance," Bateman said.

The alternative "would be to hole up at Mar-a-Lago" and try to pressure Florida's Republican Governor Ron DeSantis not to extradite him to New York, Bateman said, but this would also limit Trump's ability to campaign.

"He will probably be able to negotiate not being in handcuffs, and the privileged can often get away without doing the inhumane 'perp walk,'" Bateman said.

"He'll probably be released on his own recognizance, since he's not really a flight risk and since New York State bail reform limits its use for non-violent offenders. So he can probably keep campaigning without any real disruption up until the days where he needs to be in court for the trial," he said.

A Long Process

If Trump is indicted and has to stand trial, the process is likely to take time and may not result in any conviction. Even if the former president is convicted, there's no way to know if he'll serve prison time.

"Preparation for U.S. criminal trials can take a long time, and I wouldn't be surprised if Trump's lawyers are pros at dragging this out," Bateman said.

Bateman noted that once the trial starts defendants are generally required to be present at each distinct stage, which could disrupt his ability to campaign across the country in-person—but not affect his access to social media.

"But there are exceptions and waivers—it is the defendant's right to be present, at least as much as their obligation—and I expect Trump's lawyers would try to make sure that he was present insofar as it helped him amplify his already considerable ability to focus attention on himself, but absent when he wanted to be," he said.

Bateman said that neither a conviction or a prison term were guaranteed but "there's nothing to bar someone in prison from being elected president."

"The most famous person to run a campaign from prison was Socialist candidate Eugene Debs, who was imprisoned and convicted for speaking out against World War I. For an imprisoned Trump, it would be surrogates and the party that do the bulk of campaigning for him," he said.

Virtual Rallies from Prison

In a worst-case scenario for Trump, he could be serving time as he campaigns for the 2024 Republican nomination, but he would still be able to continue in the race for the White House.

Paul Quirk, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia, in Canada, told Newsweek Trump could be "speaking to television audiences from a platform in a prison yard."

"Prison authorities have a great deal of discretion about the conditions of incarceration," Quirk said. "Many prisoners spend much of their day outside their cells—working in the laundry, taking part in rehabilitation programs, or studying law in the prison library."

Demonstrators gather outside of Manhattan Criminal Court as a grand jury is expected to vote this week on whether to indict former U.S. President Donald Trump on March 21, 2023 in New York City. Political scientists have told Newsweek that Trump could run for president from prison. Scott Olson/Getty Images © Scott Olson/Getty Images Demonstrators gather outside of Manhattan Criminal Court as a grand jury is expected to vote this week on whether to indict former U.S. President Donald Trump on March 21, 2023 in New York City. Political scientists have told Newsweek that Trump could run for president from prison. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Quirk said that if Trump were in prison during the 2024 presidential campaign "prison management would face heavy political pressure to accommodate his campaign activities."

"There would be no legal barrier to their doing so. Trump would likely be able to hold virtual rallies regularly, wearing a blue suit and red tie, with a row of American flags behind him," he said.

"From a constitutional standpoint, there would be strong grounds for permitting him to campaign and letting the people decide what to make of his criminal record," Quirk added.

Quirk said many Trump supporters "would see his incarceration as just more proof of his deep state and Soros-themed conspiracy theories."

Formidable Impediments to a Campaign

As Eugene V. Debs showed, it is possible to run from prison and win a considerable number of votes, but the prospect poses considerable difficulties, according to Robert Singh, a professor of politics at Birkbeck, University of London, U.K.

"There is nothing to stop him 'running' from chokey, and it is not unprecedented," Singh told Newsweek, pointing to Debs.

"Practically, the impediments would be formidable," Singh said. "Most obviously, he would be unable to 'appear' at campaign rallies, events, or give speeches in person.

"Whether he could do this online would presumably depend on the prison authorities, but even if they allowed that, it would be a pale imitation of an in-person event."

Retail Politics

The 2024 primary season is less than a year way and Republican hopefuls are likely to make many visits to early voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire—which may not be possible if Trump is in prison.

Singh said that much campaigning in the Republican primaries and caucuses "relies heavily on retail politics—meeting voters in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada—that would afford Trump's rivals a major boost."

Social media could not fully mitigate Trump's absence from the campaign, Singh said.

"Moreover, would the RNC really allow him to appear in Republican Party presidential debates virtually?" he asked. "Even if that occurred, his put-downs and zingers would hardly resonate in the same way as sharing an actual stage with his competitors."

"Beyond this, it is far from clear how he could run a campaign in terms of a campaign team and organization," Singh added.

Singh said that Trump could "devolve its management, finance raising operations, advertising and so on—not much different from a 'proper' campaign."

"But whether he could speak to his team, and how often, would again rely on the generosity of the prison authorities," he said. "Cynics might suggest this could actually prove more stable than his 2016 campaign, with its staff turnover and incoherence, but that may be a stretch."

'Devastating Ridicule'

One problem with a presidential campaign run from prison would be public perception. While at the moment the prospect is only theoretical, the practicalities could make Trump's campaign look absurd.

"The prospect of a former American president running a national campaign from behind bars is like something out of a bad Hollywood script—a film that would never get made because the storyline is too outlandish," Thomas Gift, founding director of University College London's Centre on U.S. Politics, told Newsweek.

"And yet, here we are talking about it in an only mildly hypothetical way," he added. "The prospect remains fanciful, but raises interesting questions about how the logistics could work."

"Ultra-MAGA rallies would be out, and it would certainly cramp Trump's style," Gift said. "At the same time, I suppose that Trump could take reassurance in the fact that, if Biden was able to win in 2020 by voluntarily locking himself into his Delaware basement, there's no reason why Trump couldn't win in 2024 by being forcibly locked up in a New York jail cell."

Quirk told Newsweek that "the absurdity of such a campaign would not be lost" on most Americans.

"Trump making campaign appearances from prison would constantly remind the public of his crimes. Such a campaign would be subject to devastating ridicule. The cartoons would draw themselves," he said.

However, Quirk said that with "Trump's ownership of the Republican base, neither the likely disastrous results of such a campaign, nor the long-term harm it would do to the party, can prevent it from happening."

"The slow movement of the wheels of justice almost certainly will," he said. "As a best guess at this stage, Trump at the height of the 2024 campaign season will be fighting multiple criminal charges. Even if already convicted, he will probably be free pending appeal. So he will be able to conduct campaign rallies, between court dates, in person."

Running as a Felon

A Trump campaign from prison would pose logistical as well as political problems but such an unprecedented move would also raise serious issues for Trump personally and, in the long term, for governing the country.

"There is the simple but serious problem that running as a felon would pose," said Singh. "Even for some of his more ardent supporters in the GOP base, seeing an aspirant president speaking from prison would be, to understate matters, jarring."

"It would surely compound the sense among many that the time is ripe for Trumpism without Trump," he added. "There is also the consideration of what mental state confinement for weeks or months—after so many decades of the high-life—would have on someone who is, after all, in his 70s."

"All told, while imprisonment might not preclude a campaign, it probably would suffice to keep him from securing either the nomination or winning a general election," Singh added.

A Constitutional Crisis?

Bateman told Newsweek that the timing and how the GOP responds to a potential Trump indictment will matter.

"If a conviction happens before or during the primaries, party elites have to decide whether to coordinate against him," Bateman said. "If Trump has already lost a few primaries, or is clearly behind in the polls, that will be easier.

"But if Trump were nominated by the GOP or elected president in 2024 and was convicted by the time of the inauguration, we'd be in a clear constitutional crisis."

If Trump is already elected "there is simply no guidance for resolving such a dispute between state and federal authority."

"If he's the nominee, then the GOP will have to decide to stick with him or somehow throw him out," Bateman said. "If he were still on trial and inaugurated, there would still be a constitutional crisis. It'll be dangerous territory no matter the case, though not as dangerous as establishing a principle of legal impunity for the political class of this country."

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