- Court proceedings and a trial involving Trump would be unprecedented in US history.
- Local officials are worried a trial of that magnitude would draw big crowds and clashing protesters.
- A courthouse would need serious security and coordination with local, state, and federal officials.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Former President Donald Trump is facing legal jeopardy in three major East Coast cities where a criminal indictment would create unprecedented logistical and security concerns testing the capacities of government on the local, state, and federal levels.
The three cities — Atlanta, New York, and Washington, DC — are no strangers to big events that draw big crowds, media hordes, and police squads, to keep the peace.
But court proceedings and trials involving Trump would be unlike anything in US history. No president has ever been criminally charged while in or out of office, much less one who publicly stoked a deadly riot at the US Capitol in a bid to hold on to power.
Local government leaders acknowledge that Trump being hauled into court is a very real possibility, Insider found in a survey of officials from the three cities. Current and former officials also said they recognized a Trump trial would bring organizational and security challenges, including a massive media presence and the threat of violent protests.
Some of the elected officials willing to engage on the topic described a sense of alarm at the combustible combination ahead given recent public maneuvers and statements from investigators examining Trump’s behavior. They worry about a toxic political environment where protesters clash over a controversial former president who’s defending himself in court against the prospect of a conviction and prison time.
“With the current voter suppression laws that we are experiencing and the different things that are happening regarding this past election, I definitely think that feelings are intensified, and we will probably need to be prepared for that,” Carmalitha Gumbs, a councilwoman from South Fulton, Georgia, which is near the center of one possible Trump court case, told Insider.
“Security would become a serious issue, and there would need to be precautions that are taken, precisely because of Trump’s continuing policy of having no enemies on his right,” added Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat of Maryland and former House impeachment manager from Trump’s Senate trial earlier this year. His district encompasses the suburban Washington, DC, area.
Making matters more challenging for government officials and law-enforcement jurisdictions is that any Trump proceedings could take place in multiple locations and over the course of weeks or months. There’d be arraignments and preliminary hearings before any trial took place, setting the stage for an event where the lead defendant would have Secret Service protection and a love-him-or-hate-him persona that draws in onlookers and passionate advocates looking for the spotlight.
“Obviously, it would be a media circus,” Donna Rotunno, the defense attorney who represented Harvey Weinstein in his New York case, told Insider. “I think it would probably be a larger group of media than we’ve ever seen in any case ever.”
“A potential case against Trump would be a logistical nightmare,” added Daniel R. Alonso, a former second-in-command for Cyrus Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney who has been investigating the finances of both the former president and his namesake company, the Trump Organization.
The challenges wouldn’t just be about Trump on trial. Others in the ex-president’s immediate orbit could create some of the same chaos on the streets.
“A trial against Trump, or even one of his companies or executives, particularly a member of his family, would be unprecedented in a courthouse that has seen many, many high-profile cases over the decades,” Alonso said. “That’s a function both of his having been president of the United States and because he is an unusually combative litigant.”
Yes, Trump would have to show up in court
One big reason for concerns around Trump is just the presence of the man himself in a courthouse. A case (or cases) of this magnitude would likely draw out big crowds.
That would mean extra work for local law enforcement and the Secret Service, which provides protection to all former presidents no matter where they reside.
“Because of the attention he will draw and because of the interest that people have in him, both pro and con, the Secret Service is going to work hand in glove with the local law enforcement and other federal agencies to protect him,” Bill Pickle, a former deputy assistant director of the Secret Service, told Insider.
While Trump relishes in flouting norms and calling investigations against him part of a “witch hunt,” legal experts said he couldn’t simply cross his arms and refuse to budge from his private clubs in South Florida and New Jersey, which now serve as his post-White House seasonal residences.
Should Trump get indicted — in Atlanta on local charges, in New York on state charges, or in Washington on federal charges — he would have to personally appear in court. There’s precedent for that with Spiro Agnew, who was under a federal bribery investigation while serving as vice president under President Richard Nixon. Agnew appeared for an October 1973 hearing to plead no contest on a felony charge of income-tax evasion on the same day he officially resigned his office.
“He would have to submit to the jurisdiction of the court,” Alonso, now a partner at Buckley LLP, said of Trump. “He has no choice there.”
Like defendants nationwide, Trump could get some relief if he ended up facing legal proceedings during the COVID-19 era. Courts have been more flexible during the pandemic, but the decision there on what flies in court would be up to the judge presiding in the case.
Judges typically allow more routine court proceedings to happen without the defendant present, or over Zoom, but those decisions are still made at the judge’s discretion.
If Trump is charged, and his case goes to trial, he will almost certainly be present in the courtroom the entire time, Alonso said. Defendants technically have a right to waive their presence at trial, but it’s extremely rare for anyone to take that step.
“That’s virtually never done unless the defendant does it by absconding,” Alonso said.
Criminal risks on multiple fronts for Trump
By now, Trump’s legal troubles are multifold and well-documented.
In New York, the New York attorney general’s office and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office are running parallel investigations into whether Trump and his NYC-based company broke tax laws by keeping two sets of books. Vance appears to be in the final stages of his investigation, and many believe he will announce charges against Trump before his term as district attorney expires at the end of the year. Vance has already secured the US Supreme Court’s approval to subpoena reams of the former president’s financial documents and is now looking for cooperators who can guide his investigators through them.
Fulton County prosecutors in Georgia impaneled a grand jury to determine if any state election laws were broken during Trump’s January 2 phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Publicly released transcripts of the call show Trump pressuring Raffensperger to “find” votes to overturn President Joe Biden’s presidential win.
CNN recently reported that Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ office was planning on issuing subpoenas as soon as May that would force Raffensperger’s staff members to testify and share information on Trump’s efforts to sway the election results because of the lack of cooperation from the Georgia secretary of state’s office.
In Washington, Trump faces the possibility of a federal investigation turning into criminal charges related to evidence that he tried to stymie the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators who were examining Russian election interference in 2016 and his role in inciting the deadly rioting at the Capitol on January 6.
For now, the Justice Department under Biden appears to be hanging back and letting local jurisdictions handle Trump, Insider reported last week. That’s in part because a federal prosecution of the former president stemming from the Capitol breach is seen as highly improbable barring the discovery of any “smoking-gun” evidence linking Trump to the coordination of the insurrectionists on the seat of American democracy.
‘Naked Cowboy’ is ready for protests
Since January 6, Trump has made few public appearances, and several groups that support him have come under investigation or otherwise gone underground. But the former president’s supporters say that forcing him to show up in a courthouse would likely breed more resentment among his most fervent base.
“If it was at a court building, wherever they would have it, I think that there would definitely be as many people as possible out there,” said Robert Burck, the Trump supporter known as “The Naked Cowboy” who said in an interview he’d expect pro-Trump New Yorkers to turn out in droves.
New York officials said they would be ready for Trump if he was brought back to his home state to stand trial.
The Empire State has a history of convening and handling high-profile cases, and the 4,000 court officers assigned to the state system receive similar training as the New York Police Department and state police officers, Lucian Chalfen, the director of public information for the New York state court system, said.
Chalfen cited the trial for Weinstein, the Hollywood producer now serving 23 years in prison after his February 2020 conviction on first-degree criminal sexual assault and third-degree rape. That’s the closest recent example, he said, of a criminal proceeding that approaches the one New York would have to deal with in Trump’s case.
“They have a long history of handling high-profile cases and work in conjunction with local, state, and federal law enforcement when necessary,” Chalfen said.
The Weinstein trial received considerable attention: Barriers were erected around the courthouse in lower Manhattan, and reporters had to stand in line in freezing weather hours before the building opened if they wanted to get a seat in the courtroom. Ken Auletta, a New Yorker reporter covering the case, even paid a graduate-school student to stand in line for him so that he could make it in the room.
Rotunno, who represented Weinstein during his rape trial, said the court officers made sure everything operated like clockwork, ensuring she, Weinstein, and the rest of the legal team could get through the building safely.
“The first time I appeared there on a status date, they took us aside. They introduced themselves. They told us what their roles were going to be,” Rotunno said. “They had elevators ready to go the minute we checked in.”
Rotunno said she “never felt unsafe” with the court officers leading the security effort, even though she got death threats every day for defending Weinstein.
“They paid attention to things,” she said. “I had to share bathrooms with the same people who were on the opposite side, and they paid attention to all that. They paid attention to the chatter in the gallery.”
Alonso said prosecutors could always charge Trump’s company or other executives rather than the ex-president himself. But if Trump was hauled into court, a trial would be different from anything New York has seen before, Alonso said.
“Harvey Weinstein is a notorious sex criminal,” Alonso said. “As bad as that is, Donald Trump is a different order of magnitude because he was the president of the United States. It’s just two totally different things.”
Super Bowls, Olympics, and maybe soon a Trump trial
Atlanta, home to Super Bowls and the 1996 Summer Olympics, faces its own unique circumstances should it become ground zero for Trump.
The Fulton County courthouse just a few blocks from the Georgia State Capitol revamped its security protocols and put more safety measures in place after a 2005 shooting at the building left three people dead, including a county judge.
Local court security will be on full display during another high-profile case involving an Atlanta police officer who shot and killed 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy’s parking lot. It’s unclear when the trial is expected to begin.
Willis has asked for the case to be transferred to another prosecutor, citing concerns about conflicts because of how her predecessor, Paul Howard, handled the case when he was in office.
Bill Raftery, a senior knowledge and information-services analyst at the nonprofit National Center for State Courts, told Insider it would take weeks or months for the courthouse to prepare for a Trump trial if it took place in Fulton County.
He added that it would be crucial for any courthouse in the country that handled a Trump trial to also have up-to-date cybersecurity and technology infrastructure in place.
“There’s no one piece that’s going to be more or less important than the other. They’re all critical,” he said.
A courthouse would have to coordinate with local, state, and federal government officials to ensure it would have enough law-enforcement personnel to stay for weeks or months, Raftery said.
“It’s not just the judge or the court staff,” he said. “It has to be across the board. It has to be all three branches of government.”
Rafiq Ahmad, the president of the Georgia chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, expressed confidence that law enforcement would be prepared to handle large crowds of people outside any Trump trial in the Fulton County area.
“The Atlanta law-enforcement community has become extremely cohesive and works together to share information and to respond,” he told Insider. “I’m very confident in working with the law-enforcement partners in Atlanta, that they have learned from the last protest and are now better prepared for anything that comes next.”
The office of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms declined to comment when asked whether the mayor had begun having conversations about security preparations for a Trump trial.
Fulton County Commissioner Bob Ellis told Insider discussions around security preparations with the mayor would be “premature” at this point.
But the Republican commissioner added that courthouse security was always “a high priority” for the county.
“I have no doubt our sheriff’s office, who handles such, would have an appropriate plan to address such a situation, and that would be supported by the Board of Commissioners,” Ellis said.
The Fulton County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to Insiders request for comment on if it had begun to make preparations for a Trump trial.
In the shadow of the Capitol
After Trump’s second impeachment trial, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said legal risks still awaited the former president.
“President Trump is still liable for everything he did while in office,” McConnell said after voting to acquit Trump. “He didn’t get away with anything yet. We have a criminal-justice system in this country. We have civil litigation.”
That’s where Washington could come into play. The federal courthouse in Washington has experience handling high-profile cases after hosting trials and court proceedings involving several Trump associates, including Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, and Michael Flynn. Stone’s trial in 2019 attracted news cameras and crowds of supporters and protesters, and various procedural court proceedings for Flynn and Manafort drew similar attention as they faced charges stemming from the Russia investigation.
But a Trump trial would raise the stakes considerably and bring a new level of intensity and public interest to a federal courthouse that is only a few city blocks from the US Capitol.
For now, it appears unlikely that Trump will face prosecution in Washington, whether it be for his conduct tied to the Capitol rioting or his actions while president, according to legal observers and people familiar with the Justice Department.
Several local Washington officials did not respond to requests for comment about plans to prepare for the prospect of Trump returning to face criminal charges.
As McConnell forecast in February, civil lawsuits have accused Trump of inciting the mob that overtook the Capitol. A group of 10 Democrats in early April joined a lawsuit filed by Mississippi Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson that alleged Trump violated the Ku Klux Klan Act, a Reconstruction-era law that includes protections against violent conspiracies meant to prevent Congress from carrying out its constitutional duties.
On the heels of a presidency filled with high-profile litigation, the lawsuit ensures Trump’s name will still linger prominently for months ahead in Washington’s federal courthouse — even if he manages to avoid facing any criminal charges.
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