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A 2024 announcement from Trump would complicate ongoing investigations

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A federal judge yesterday unsealed a more detailed list of items seized by the FBI from former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago home. This is the latest in a series of developments in state and federal investigations that involve Donald Trump - the same time he's been publicly suggesting he might run for president again in 2024. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas joins us. Ryan, thanks for being with us.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And if Donald Trump announces his candidacy officially, does that have any effect on the investigations that surround it?

LUCAS: Well, I put a version of that exact question to several legal experts, and the answer I got back basically boils down to this. Legally speaking, it would have no effect whatsoever on these investigations. Here's how Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson put it.

JESSICA LEVINSON: If President Trump decides to become candidate Trump again, it will have no legal impact on any of the criminal investigations against him. It will have a huge political impact, but there's no legal shift that happens when you're investigating a former president versus a candidate.

LUCAS: And that goes for criminal or civil investigations at both the state and federal level.

SIMON: Tell us about the state investigations that involved Donald Trump in New York and Georgia.

LUCAS: Well, in New York, the state attorney general has a civil investigation into Trump's business practices. Trump recently was deposed as part of that probe, and he pleaded the Fifth in that deposition. In Georgia, the Fulton County district attorney has a special grand jury investigation underway that's looking into efforts to overturn Trump's election loss in that state.

And then, of course, there's also the federal level. The Justice Department has its investigation into the mishandling of documents that ended up at Mar-a-Lago after Trump left office. And, of course, there's the investigation into Jan. 6th and the attack on the Capitol. And as part of that, the feds are probing a scheme to put forth a slate of fake pro-Trump electors. Now, it is important to say Trump has not been charged in these investigations, but certainly, he's facing a lot of legal scrutiny here.

SIMON: After the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, a lot of Trump allies and supporters were publicly encouraging him to declare his candidacy. Some others have been urging caution. If there is no legal impact, is there any urgency one way or another?

LUCAS: Well, while it wouldn't change the legal analysis or change how authorities conduct their various investigations, declaring would complicate matters for them because of the charged political environment right now in this country. Justice Department leaders and state officials know, of course, that any decision they make wouldn't be made in a vacuum. And so from Trump's perspective, Levinson says the good legal and political advice would be to declare. Because while it doesn't insulate him legally, it politically complicates these investigations.

LEVINSON: It could make prosecutors, both on the federal level and the state level, much more reticent to bring charges because it will look like it's potentially politically motivated as opposed to a legal decision.

LUCAS: And remember, Trump, for years, has accused the Justice Department and the FBI of being out to get him. He made the same claim, without evidence, after the Mar-a-Lago search. And he's likely to continue to push that claim, that narrative, if he decides to run in 2024.

SIMON: How do prosecutors do their duty with these kinds of challenges?

LUCAS: Well, Levinson says her advice to prosecutors right now is that there are enormous implications for the rule of law and for American politics if they decide not to charge somebody because they are a candidate. There are huge harms, she thinks, if prosecutors don't pursue charges against Trump that they would pursue against anybody else. Now, Attorney General Merrick Garland has repeatedly said that the department is going to follow the facts and the law. And he said that nobody is above the law. There is still a question as to whether the evidence prosecutors collect will ultimately support bringing any sort of charges against Trump. For now, though, of course, these investigations continue.

SIMON: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas, thanks so much.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.