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US election: Can Trump still become president if convicted?

April 14, 2024

A former president facing a criminal trial is a first in US history, and Donald Trump has four coming up. How will the outcomes affect his run for president? What if he has to go to prison? Here's what you need to know.

Donald Trump sitting in a court room
The US presidential election is just months away, but Donald Trump has a busy court schedule until thenImage: Jabin Botsford/REUTERS

Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican Party nominee for the November 2024 US presidential election, is no stranger to the courtroom. In January 2024, a jury in New York ruled that he would have to pay writer E. Jean Carroll millions of dollars in damages for sexually abusing and then defaming her, a decision that Trump is appealing. That was a civil case.

Now, Trump is about to become the first former US president ever to go on trial for criminal charges. The case, which will be heard in a New York court beginning on April 15, centers on whether he paid hush money to bury stories about an extramarital sexual encounter with a porn star to protect his 2016 campaign for the White House.

It's the first of four criminal trials — two state and two federal — that Trump has coming up. The other state case centers on alleged attempts to overturn his loss in Georgia in the 2020 presidential election; one federal case charges that he knowingly pushed election fraud lies in 2020 to try to stay in power; and another charges that he illegally retained classified government documents when he left the White House, a violation of the Presidential Records Act. 

Donald Trump is seen among a throng of attorneys and police as he enters a New York courtroom for a pre-trial hearing on March 25, 2024
Trump's court appearances always make for a spectacle, as when he arrived for a pre-trial hearing in his hush money case in March 2024Image: Selcuk Acar/Anadolu/picture alliance

Can Donald Trump still run for president if convicted? 

Yes. No matter how any of these cases end, Trump will still be able to run for president. The US Constitution sets only three eligibility requirements for persons wanting the job: They must be a natural-born citizen of the United States, be at least 35 years old and have resided in the US for at least 14 years. Nowhere does it say that a convicted criminal cannot run for or become president. 

"There are several arguments over whether a presidential candidate who is indicted or is involved in an ongoing legal case should still run for office," Laura Merrifield Wilson, associate professor of political science at the University of Indianapolis, told DW in December 2023. "But those are based on morals, judgement and preferences, not overt laws or procedural barriers."

Could Trump be disqualified under the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution?

Section 3 of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution states that people who "engaged in insurrection or rebellion" after taking an oath to support the constitution are disqualified from holding "any office, civil or military, under the United States."

Activists who want Trump disqualified under this clause say the then-president's actions in the run-up to the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol constitute participation in an insurrection. They say his lies about how Democrats stole the election encouraged the right-wing mob that stormed the US Capitol that day.

Attempts have been launched to have Trump removed from primary ballots in a number of states under this amendment, "which was originally used to prevent secessionists from returning to their government positions after the American Civil War," explained former DW journalist Brandon Conradis, now a campaign editor with political news site The Hill.

US Supreme Court restores Trump to Colorado ballot

But in March 2024, the Supreme Court struck down one such attempt in Colorado, saying states do not have the authority to bar individuals from running for federal office.

The "responsibility for enforcing Section 3 against federal officeholders and candidates rests with Congress," wrote the Supreme Court in the opinion that accompanied its verdict. The decision thus voided similar attempts in other states.

Since Congress is split, with Republicans holding the majority in the House of Representatives and Democrats having a one-seat majority in the Senate, it seems highly unlikely that Trump will be disqualified under the 14th Amendment.

Could Trump vote in the US election if convicted? 

Probably not. Trump is registered to vote in Florida, where convicted felons are disenfranchised.

"Most felons in Florida regain voting rights after completing their full sentence, including parole or probation, and paying all fines and fees," politics reporter Maggie Astor wrote in The New York Times.

But Trump's parole would likely not be up in time for him to regain his right to vote. So, if convicted, Trump could still run for president, but not vote for himself.

Donald and Melania Trump walk next to one another as they leave a polling station in Florida, during voting for the November 2022 midterm elections — a sign emblazoned with an American flag and the words "Vote Here" can be seen in the foreground
If convicted, the former president would not likely be able to vote for himself in NovemberImage: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

But what happens if Trump actually has to go to prison? 

No one knows.

"We're so far removed from anything that's ever happened," Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law expert at the University of California, Berkeley, told The New York Times. "It's just guessing."

Legally, Trump would remain eligible to run, even from behind bars. But of course a president who's elected while in prison would present a logistical challenge.

Journalist Astor speculated that "Trump could sue to be released on the basis that his imprisonment was preventing him from fulfilling his constitutional obligations as president."  

But again ― since nothing like this has ever happened in the course of US history — it's impossible to say how things might play out.

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If elected, could Trump dismiss the cases against him or pardon himself? 

In theory, Trump could commute his prison sentence and leave his conviction in place, or even try to fully pardon himself, but these would be extreme assertions of presidential power that would likely go before the Supreme Court (where conservative justices hold a 6-3 majority) to be vetted for their constitutionality.

Alternatively, President Joe Biden could pardon a victorious Trump on his way out the door so that the man elected by US voters could govern the country.

Such actions, however, would only apply to Trump's federal cases, not the upcoming New York state hush money trial, nor the Georgia election interference case, as presidents do not have the power to grant pardons for state convictions.

Edited by: Jon Shelton

US: 'Hush money' trial against Donald Trump begins

Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker