Trump's 'Teflon Don' nickname will be tested with what may be his toughest legal battle yet

The cases -- and Trump's success or failure -- depend on the wide differences in the way state and federal laws handle trial publicity, the seriousness of the charges, and procedural rules. Complicating the Georgia case is that Trump may appear in court with 17 co-defendants in the case: not a good look.

Published: August 25, 2023 6:04am

Former President Donald Trump's nickname of "Teflon Don" is being tested as he faces what may be his toughest legal challenge yet: Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis' indictment in Georgia.

While Trump is the subject of at least nine civil and criminal legal battles as he runs for the presidency in 2024, the Georgia state charges and procedures may pose unique difficulties compared to the three other criminal cases in which Trump has been indicted.

Here are some of the ways the Georgia case is different from the New York state business fraud case, the federal 2020 election case and the federal classified documents case:

  1. The pressure is raised as the Georgia case is likely to be televised.

Cameras are banned in federal courtrooms, and New York state, although once allowed cameras in courtrooms, now has some of the most restrictive courts when it comes to media coverage of legal proceedings, according to a report last year from The Fund for Modern Courts. When he pleaded not guilty earlier this year to the New York state charges, New York Supreme Court Judge Juan Merchan only allowed a few still photographers to take photos of Trump for several minutes before the proceedings began, and he explicitly banned video cameras.

Georgia is far more permissive of cameras in the courtroom, and a judge would need to be presented by one of the parties with "a compelling reason" to bar such devices, according to Axios.

At the trial court level under Georgia state law, in order to record a court hearing journalists must file a timely written request on a form provided by the court with the judge involved in the proceeding. The judge may decide to allow only one camera or recording device at a given time (often shared with other outlets as a "pool" camera), and may deny the request entirely if he or she finds that "there is a substantial likelihood of harm arising from one or more of the following factors, that the harm outweighs the benefit of recording to the public." There is also a prohibition on photographing or televising members of the jury.

Video of the Georgia proceedings could generate public support for the former president, or it could backfire depending on how the case plays out.

  1. If found guilty, a pardon in Georgia would take at least five years.

The president can use his or her constitutional authority to issue pardons for federal crimes. Several Republican presidential candidates have said they would pardon Trump or would consider doing so if they are elected and Trump is convicted of federal crimes. If Trump becomes president, he could arguably disrupt the federal criminal charges by ordering the Justice Department to dismiss the case or by trying to pardon himself.

The last president to be pardoned was Richard M. Nixon, pardoned by President Gerald Ford in 1974. 

In New York, under the state constitution, the Governor of New York has the power to grant clemency to individuals who have been convicted of crimes under New York State law. The governor cannot grant clemency for federal convictions or convictions from other states or countries. In New York, as a purely political matter, such an outcome is highly unlikely for Trump because the last Republican governor for the deep-blue state left office in 2006.

At the same time, the 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in New York are less serious than the charges Trump faces in Georgia and they carry less of a risk of being sentenced to prison. According to New York criminal lawyer Jeremy Saland, "A conviction for the misdemeanor crime is punishable by as long as one year in jail while the class "E" felony offense has a potential penalty of up to four years in prison."

The Georgia case will decide if Trump violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which carries a minimum five-year prison sentence, and the penalty can go as high as 20 years incarceration. Trump is also charged with "Solicitation of Violation of Oath by Public Officer," which applies "imprisonment for not less than one nor more than five years."

In Georgia, however, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles' five-member panel issues pardons on a very restrictive basis, and says that applicants "must have completed all sentence(s) at least five (5) years prior to applying" for a pardon.

  1. Trump could stand alongside 17 other co-defendants before a jury. 

While the federal election case charged six unnamed co-conspirators and the classified documents case indicted two named co-conspirators, many more defendants are involved in the Georgia case. It is unclear whether he will be tried alongside the co-defendants in the federal or Georgia case, but Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is pushing for it. On Thursday, State Court Judge Scott McAfee granted a co-defendant's "speedy trial" request with Willis' agreement, planning trial commencing by November 3. Trump's lawyers filed a motion asking that his trial be severed from that of his co-defendants. 

While Trump's motion has not yet been addressed by Judge McAfee, he said in the Thursday ruling that "At this time, these deadlines do not apply to any co-defendant." That means Trump could still be forced to face a jury with 17 other co-defendants. 

Follow Madeleine Hubbard on X or Instagram.

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