Trump’s courtroom and campaign trail collision is about to become a reality

CNNThe presidential election is about to become inextricably entangled with Donald Trump’s criminal turmoil as his crushing calendar of legal obligations collides with the race to the Iowa caucuses in two weeks.

The juxtaposition of the courtroom and campaign trail will set the tone for an unprecedented White House race overshadowed by the ex-president’s four looming criminal trials. When the first votes are cast in the Republican primary race, the country will embark on a political test that will again stretch its unity, democracy and legal institutions to the limit. Trump is leaving no doubt that he would use a second term to punish his political enemies and would likely seek to use the powers of the presidency to evade accountability for his attempt to steal the 2020 election.

The election could even see Trump, the GOP front-runner, run as a convicted felon in November, depending on the timing of his trials and if he wins the nomination. As the primary season begins for real this month, the most likely scenario in November is a tight rematch, which polls show most voters don’t want, between the ex-president and the current one.

Trump is determined to make an unmistakable statement by winning Iowa, after failing to do in 2016, as the first step in an extraordinary political comeback. It’s only been three years since he left Washington in disgrace after refusing to accept the result of the 2020 election and whipped up a mob that attacked the US Capitol in a stunning assault on democracy. Now, Trump – who faces 91 criminal charges – is well positioned to become only the second ex-president after Grover Cleveland in 1892 to claim a non-consecutive second term that would rock the country and the world.

The ex-president rang in the New Year Monday with a wild social media post filled with falsehoods about the 2020 election and unsubstantiated accusations that President Joe Biden had committed criminal acts. His enraged and defensive tone previewed how Trump plans to conduct the 2024 presidential race and the national ordeal ahead. He claimed on Truth Social that his successor had “attacked his Political Opponent at a level never seen before in this Country, and wants desperately to PUT ‘TRUMP’ IN PRISON. He is playing a very dangerous game, and the great people of America WILL NOT STAND FOR IT.”

Trump’s actions after the last election are at the root of why this election is sure to be so fractious – and critical to the future of the nation. Many of the multiple legal challenges he must deal with in the next few weeks stem from his falsehoods about a stolen election and desperate attempts to cling to power by defying the will of voters. And his political use of his legal plight – including his claims that he’s being politically persecuted by the Biden administration – and his growing extremism will pollute the political atmosphere running up to the election. His promise to devote a second presidency to “retribution” against his enemies raises the prospect of another dark period in American politics.

Time running out for Trump’s GOP rivals

Trump’s double political and legal life in the next few weeks will coincide with the intensifying effort by his Republican rivals to thwart his march toward a third consecutive Republican nomination. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has staked his campaign on an upset win in Iowa, which seems unlikely, according to polls. And former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is pushing hard for a win in New Hampshire that would grant her a ticket to a head-to-head clash with Trump elsewhere. But neither candidate has been willing to capitalize on the ex-president’s legal troubles out of fear of alienating GOP base voters who have rallied to Trump’s side with every indictment and mug shot.

While voters will ultimately decide the outcome of the campaign, his rivals’ struggles suggest Trump has an even firmer grip on the party than he did in 2020. But despite his strength, he remains a high-risk general election prospect for Republicans, since his demagoguery has alienated critical swing-state voters in the past. And with his rhetoric reminiscent of 1930s dictators, he may be playing directly into Biden’s main argument that he would destroy US democracy and political freedoms.

Biden’s future is also on the line over next few weeks

While Trump faces criminal distractions in the US, Biden must tackle vexing domestic and foreign policy showdowns in the coming two weeks and beyond that have the capacity to define his year — and his hopes for a second term.

Time is ticking toward a January 19 partial government funding deadline as the president is pushing Congress to pass multi-billion-dollar aid packages for Ukraine’s and Israel’s war efforts, which House Republicans are holding hostage to their demands for draconian measures to respond to the southern border crisis. The clash, which also involves another partial funding deadline on February 2, poses an almost impossible challenge for a Congress that is simply unable to govern.

A critical moment is also approaching for new House Speaker Mike Johnson, who may face a choice between indulging far-right members controlling his tiny majority and keeping the government open and honoring US obligations to allies mired in bloody wars. It’s the same dilemma that felled former Speaker Kevin McCarthy. The proximity of the Iowa caucuses and Trump’s longer-term interest in seeing chaos in Washington will make the government spending mess even more difficult to solve.

Trump is planning a string of events in Iowa as he seeks to quickly close out the primary and to move on to a general election campaign against Biden. But he will be constantly dragged back from the trail.

The former president faces a new battle against efforts by Maine and Colorado to bar him from the ballot over the 14th Amendment’s “insurrectionist” ban. He’s fighting special counsel Jack Smith on multiple fronts, including over his own expansive claims that steps he took to overturn the 2020 election were covered by presidential immunity. If appeals that will probably land at the Supreme Court end in his favor, they’d result in a massive expansion of executive authority and effectively mean presidents would be above the law.

On January 11, meanwhile, closing arguments begin in the civil fraud trial in New York that is targeting Trump, his adult sons and the Trump Organization. The former president’s fiery appearance in the witness box last year was a preview of how he will fuse his legal and political strategies in 2024. The judge in the case, who has already ruled that fraud was committed, is hoping to issue a final ruling, including over restitution, by the end of the month – although Trump’s lawyers have already appealed the summary judgment ruling against Trump, and they’ve made clear they are likely to appeal the judge’s ruling from the trial itself.

Any Iowa victory party on January 15 could, meanwhile, be soured for Trump the next day with the opening of the trial to set damages in the second lawsuit brought against him by E. Jean Carroll. A civil jury in a separate suit has already ordered Trump to pay the writer $5 million for battery and defamation after finding he sexually abused her. Trump has denied all wrongdoing.

His legal problems will not end with this list. Fresh litigation is expected in the coming weeks and months ahead of the racketeering trial in Georgia in which Trump and associates are being called to account for alleged election meddling and in the federal case in Florida over his hoarding and alleged mishandling of classified documents.

The outcome of the appeals court action on Trump’s immunity claim will be especially important in establishing whether the current start date for his federal election interference trial will slip past March 4 – which is the day before Super Tuesday. That could then reshuffle the schedules of the other judges and will help determine whether Trump will actually face a criminal trial before November’s election.

Or will his efforts succeed in running out the clock and open the possibility that he could nullify the federal criminal cases against him with presidential authority if he wins in November? A US appeals court in Washington, DC, is due to begin hearing the ex-president’s arguments to overturn a lower court ruling that rejected the immunity claim on January 9. The case is almost certain to end up before the Supreme Court alongside the Maine and Colorado ballot cases, meaning that the top bench will get dragged even further into the corrosive political heat of a contentious presidential election.

Trump has until Thursday to appeal the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision to take him off the ballot. The Colorado Republican Party, which was also a party in the case, has already appealed the ruling and asked the US Supreme Court to overturn the decision. Several other states have rejected similar efforts. But in the latest twist to the saga of the 14th Amendment, Maine’s Democratic Secretary of State Shenna Bellows announced her decision last week, although it’s paused to allow the former president to appeal.