How Trump's trials will make a mess of the 2024 election

Former President Donald Trump in front of a huge U.S. flag at the Georgia state GOP convention.
Former President Donald Trump at the Georgia state GOP convention on June 10. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Former President Donald Trump is likely to be on trial for all of 2024. He is also likely to be the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nominee.

America still isn’t reckoning with how chaotic — and potentially calamitous — this head-on collision will be.

The word “unprecedented” has been applied to Trump so often that it’s lost some of its sting. But the coming election cycle will truly be unlike any other in U.S. history.

No previous president had ever been indicted; Trump has now been indicted four times this year. He currently faces 91 criminal charges as well as three civil cases. And while prior presidential hopefuls have campaigned from prison, they’ve all been fringe candidates whose trials had already concluded.

Trump is different. It’s not just that he’s the GOP frontrunner with a good chance of winning the White House next November. It’s also that his legal fate will be determined at the same time as his electoral fortunes, infusing every moment of the campaign with criminal significance.

That’s a recipe for political pandemonium.

Consider how Trump’s two split-screen timelines are about to smash into each other.

Fall 2023

Is Trump even eligible to be president again?

In recent weeks, leading conservative constitutional scholars have started to insist that Trump’s efforts to overturn his 2020 loss make him ineligible to appear on the 2024 ballot.

Read more on Yahoo News: Should Trump be disqualified from running for president?

Their argument? That Section 3 of the 14th Amendment automatically disqualifies any previous officeholder — that is, someone who had taken an oath “to support the Constitution of the United States” — if that person has “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.”

As a result, a Florida tax attorney is now challenging Trump’s eligibility in federal court; a watchdog group has sued in Colorado as well; and election officials in Michigan, New Hampshire and elsewhere — both Democratic and Republican — are considering whether to exclude the former president from their state ballots.

Filing deadlines for the 2024 presidential contest start with Nevada on Oct. 16, then ramp up in November and December. If just one state challenges Trump’s eligibility — and if a court upholds that decision — the case will rocket straight to the U.S. Supreme Court, transforming the fourth quarter of 2023 into a constitutional clash of epic proportions.

Fall-winter 2023-24

Back-to-back (-to-back) civil cases

Trump’s first criminal trial is scheduled for March. But most people don’t realize that he has to slog through three civil trials between now and then.

On Oct. 2 — just when most presidential hopefuls are hunkering down in Iowa and New Hampshire — the former president, the Trump Organization and his elder children will start defending themselves against allegations of business fraud in New York.

Read more on Yahoo News: New York state prosecutor says Trump inflated wealth by billions, via NBC News

Then, on Jan. 15, 2024 — the same day Iowa Republicans head to the caucuses — a jury will decide how much Trump has to pay in damages for defaming writer E. Jean Carroll (again).

Finally, two weeks later — right when the New Hampshire primary typically takes place — Trump’s team will head back to court to face a federal class-action lawsuit accusing the former president and his business of promoting a pyramid scheme.

Will any of these civil cases dent Trump’s support among base voters? Unlikely. (In May, he was found civilly liable for sexually abusing Carroll; it had zero effect on his numbers.) But all the courtroom drama will continue to dominate the headlines, and perhaps rally the MAGA faithful, during the entire run-up to the first nominating contests.

Spring 2024

At least 3 criminal trials before the primaries are over

Here’s where the election could really go off the rails.

Trump’s first federal criminal trial, for conspiring to overturn his 2020 loss, is set to kick off on March 4. Because it’s coming first, and because the former president stands accused of undermining American democracy itself, this is likely to be the most contentious and all-consuming of his courtroom dramas.

Yet the pileup of primaries and caucuses known as Super Tuesday — with contests in 15 states, including delegate-rich California and Texas — is set to take place the following day, March 5. By the time the polls close that night, about 40% of all GOP delegates will have been awarded.

That means Trump could have the GOP nomination largely sewn up before any of his criminal trials really get underway.

The result could be one of the strangest spectacles in the history of presidential politics: a major party’s presumptive nominee being forced to sit in court as a criminal defendant three times in as many months: first in the election trial, then in the Manhattan hush money trial (starting March 25) and finally in the federal documents trial (starting May 20).

An alternate future is, of course, possible. Trump could stumble, a challenger could emerge and a pitched primary battle could ensue — but again, while the former president is stuck in court.

Either way, it’s hard to imagine how Trump’s legal travails won’t overshadow, and potentially upend, the latter part of the 2024 primary process (when most delegates will be awarded).

Federal prosecutors estimate that the documents case will take 21 days; the federal election case, four to six weeks. A conviction on a single count of conspiring to obstruct justice carries up to 20 years in prison. And that’s just one count in one case.

Read more on Yahoo News: Would Trump’s Secret Service detail follow him to prison? via Insider

The final primaries, meanwhile, fall on June 4.

So by the time summer rolls around, it’s possible that the Republican Party’s standard bearer could be a convicted felon — perhaps multiple times over — who is staring down decades in jail.

Summer 2024

What happens at the GOP convention if Trump is a convicted felon?

The Republican National Convention is scheduled for July 15 to 18 in Milwaukee. That’s when the party will officially nominate its 2024 candidate.

If Trump steamrolls through the primaries — if the early states elevate him again, and if the later states don’t flinch after one or more felony convictions — Milwaukee is likely to be a predictable affair.

But if his mounting legal troubles start to trigger some political fallout — if his numbers plummet; if anti-Trump forces rally around a single alternative; if a white knight jumps into the race at the last minute — the convention could suddenly become “contested,” with party leaders trying to convince a majority of delegates to nominate someone who hasn’t just been sentenced to prison.

Whether or not such a long-shot effort works, the resulting chaos, and intraparty division, could complicate Republicans’ chances in November.

Fall 2024 and beyond

The saga continues, overshadowing actual ‘issues’

Whatever happens at the convention, the Trump show won’t be over. The sprawling Georgia election case — which features 19 defendants, including him — still doesn’t have a start date. It will probably take more than four months. And unlike the others, it will be televised.

In addition, Trump’s team will almost certainly appeal any criminal convictions, meaning his ultimate fate may not be known until after the 2024 election. If he is elected, such appeals could consume the transition period or the early days of his presidency — setting up the possibility that Trump could have a prior conviction upheld or overturned while he is president or president-elect.

Read more on Yahoo News: Could Trump pardon himself if convicted? via CNN

The possibilities are nearly endless. What’s not possible, however, is that 2024 will look anything like the elections that came before it.