Will Donald Trump go to prison?

Ex-president Donald Trump faces 91 felony counts across four prosecutions as he runs for 2024 election

John Bowden
Washington DC
Wednesday 15 November 2023 14:46 EST

Donald Trump addresses election rigging in Meet the Press interview

Donald Trump faces four criminal indictments in three separate jurisdictions. Nearly 100 felony criminal charges are leveled against the former president, who remains the odds-on favourite to win the 2024 Republican primary.

As his legal battles grow more complex by the day, a serious question has emerged: Whether Mr Trump will win the nomination and campaign for the general election as a convicted criminal.

That possibility, in turn, raises another, simpler question: Will the 45th President of the United States go to prison?

Between his 91 felony counts, Mr Trump faces a total of roughly seven centuries in total jail time, spread between dozens of various charges of differing seriousness. Obviously, Mr Trump is not going to be sealed inside a federal penitentiary for all eternity, but the increasingly wide range of actions for which he is now being prosecuted is slowly chipping away at the likelihood that he will evade the inside of a cell forever.

Here, we take a look at the four prosecutions Mr Trump currently faces, and how each affects his chances of campaigning behind bars next year:

1. The New York case - maximum of 136 years

The first indictment to drop against the former president, this one also deals with conduct committed the furthest in the past. Donald Trump is accused of 34 counts of falsifying business records in the first degree, a felony under New York state law.

Each count carries a maximum sentence of four years in prison.

However, such sentences are only doled out with mitigating circumstances, like previous felony convictions or based on the seriousness of the crime. Mr Trump’s accusation is largely victimless, and as such a judge is not likely to sentence him to anything more than fines or, at the most, probation and community service were he to be convicted by a jury.

The trial for the case is set for 25 March.

Former President Donald Trump is escorted to a courtroom

2. The documents case - maximum of 450 years

After exploding into the public eye last year with an FBI raid of Mar-a-Lago, the allegations spelled out in this indictment have earned Mr Trump serious criticism from his former deputies, like Attorney General Bill Barr. The president is accused of mishandling classified information in an egregious manner, including in one instance supposedly showing classified materials to guests at his Bedminster resort.

He’s also accused of obstructing justice and making false statements; the ex-president faces a max of 10 years in prison per count of willfully retaining secrets and 20 years per count of obstructing justice.

While the latter comes with a higher maximum sentence, it’s the former that Mr Trump truly should be worried about. Convictions of willful and/or reckless retention of classified information frequently result in prison sentences of several years or more. Mr Trump faces more than 30 of those charges.

The trial in this case is set for 20 May.

Former U.S. President Trump appears on classified document charges after a federal indictment at Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. United States Courthouse, alongside his aide Walt Nauta and attorneys Chris Kise and Todd Blanche in Miami, Florida, U.S., June 13, 2023 in a courtroom sketch

3. The federal elections case - maximum of 55 years

The Department of Justice’s most recent indictment charging Mr Trump with crimes was related to the 2020 election, and the months-long effort by his team to change the results.

There are two basic parts of this case that should concern the ex-president; the possibility that he will be convicted of conspiracy to defraud the United States and conspiring against Americans’ right to vote in free elections, and the possibility that he will be convicted of directly attempting to block the certification of the election via summoning a mob to attack the Capitol.

The former is almost assuredly less of an uphill battle for prosecutors, given how much evidence for the Trump campaign’s election manipulation efforts is now public. The real battle in this regard will be for prosecutors to prove that the Trump team’s efforts went beyond legal challenges to the election results.

The latter is a bit harder to prove. Mr Trump and his allies have fiercely denied since the attack itself that the mob of Trump supporters who attacked the Capitol and left lawmakers hiding in fear for their lives was directed by the president himself. The president will likely point to his (belated) video message cheering on the rioters’ enthusiasm and urging them to go home, hours after the attack began, as evidence that this was not the case.

Should he be convicted of either, however, he faces steep maximum prison sentences for each count, in particular the obstruction of proceeding charges which carry 20-year maximum terms.

The trial in this case is set for 4 March.

Donald Trump claimed he witnessed “filth” and “decay” in Washington DC after his arraignment on 3 August

4. The Georgia case - maximum of 76.5 years

The most recent indictment to drop, Fulton County’s case against Mr Trump in Georgia is unique in that it also involves the only charges to carry minimum prison terms.

While Mr Trump is also accused of a host of minor to moderately serious felonies in the state, it’s his charge of violating Georgia’s RICO statute that should have him the most worried. It carries a minimum prison term of five years, with a maximum of 20 behind bars.

A RICO charge will undoubtedly be the hardest for prosecutor Fani Willis and her team to prove, as it involves fewer allegations (and less evidence) of specific illegality and instead relies on the prosecution convincing a judge and jury that the overall effort by Mr Trump to change the election results in Georgia pushed over the boundary into becoming a fully criminal enterprise.

Should that fail, however, Mr Trump also faces 12 other felony counts, all of which carry the potential for incarceration.

Former President Donald Trump is shown in a police booking mugshot released by the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office

How likely is a Trump jail term?

It’s hard to say, but one thing is clear: The situation is looking worse for Mr Trump every day.

Legal experts who have looked at the Justice Department’s prosecution related to the election challenges have almost uniformly remarked on the strength of the DoJ’s case, and the apparent effort by the agency to narrow down the case to a point where it can proceed through the courts before the 2024 general election.

The question also remains as to how long Mr Trump can maintain costly legal defences in all four cases, given how many millions of dollars four high-profile criminal defence trials are likely to add up to.

In the end, it’s quite possible that the answer to the question of whether Mr Trump will ever see the inside of a cell comes down to not whether he will be convicted, but whether jailing a former president is even feasible. Should he win the general election next year, an entirely new layer of complexity is added to the mix.

The one surety of the multiple prosecutions is this: Donald Trump, regardless of the outcome of his several trials, has already pushed American democracy far into the bounds of the unknown and the unprecedented. Whatever happens from here is an example of the world’s most powerful democracy making it up as it goes along.

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