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What does a target letter mean for Trump? The latest on Jan. 6 probe.


An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that former president Donald Trump was invited to appear before a grand jury next week. He was invited to do so this week. The article has been corrected.

Donald Trump could soon face charges in another investigation, this one into the efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election that culminated in the attack on the Capitol.

There’s a lot we still don’t know. Here’s what’s going on.

On Tuesday morning, the former president announced on social media that the government sent his legal team a letter Sunday night saying he is a target of the investigation. Trump said that means he could soon be charged.

He’s right, legal experts say, but there’s still a lot we don’t know.

It’s exactly what it sounds like: a letter telling him he’s the target of the investigation. It means investigators have evidence linking him to a crime and want to give him a chance to testify to the grand jury about it before the grand jury considers indicting him.

“Investigations start out very broad — they investigate crimes, not people — and as they amass more evidence, at some point it becomes clear that they are very likely to indict this person,” said Barbara McQuade, a former federal prosecutor. That’s when a letter like this is usually sent.

McQuade said these letters can serve as a declaration of rights and an invitation to the recipient to tell their side of the story to a grand jury. In this case, Trump was invited to speak before the grand jury this week. (Defendants rarely choose to say yes, and a Trump adviser told The Washington Post that the former president does not plan to testify.)

We don’t know for sure, but McQuade thinks it’s likely Trump will be charged.

“It’s clear the prosecutors and grand jury think they’re heading in the direction of charging Trump,” she said. We’re not sure when — maybe as soon as later this week when the deadline passes for Trump to appear before the grand jury, or maybe a few weeks after that. But if charges are coming, they’re coming soon, McQuade said; a letter like this is usually one of the last steps in an investigation.

We don’t yet know the charges on which Trump could be indicted.

The Post has reported that the investigation into Trump and Jan. 6, 2021, has zeroed in on three big things:

Did Trump’s campaign commit fraud by raising money off false claims of election fraud, knowing they were false?What was Trump’s involvement in setting up illegitimate electors in swing states that Trump lost, and were any crimes committed there?How did Trump and his allies pressure Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the election as he presided over Congress’s confirming of the results on Jan. 6? Pence refused, and Trump supporters attacked the Capitol. (Pence has testified to the grand jury.)

Leaders of groups that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 or played a role in it have been found guilty of the very serious crime of seditious conspiracy. It means to “conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States,” and it carries a maximum of 20 years in prison. None of the trials or pleas so far of the Oath Keepers or Proud Boys have demonstrated direct links between Trump officials and the far-right groups.

The federal government has spent more than a year looking into Trump and his allies’ efforts to block the results of the 2020 election, including their activities around the Jan. 6 certification of election results and the attack on the Capitol that day.

A special counsel, Jack Smith, is leading this and can decide whether to bring charges and against whom. President Biden’s attorney general, Merrick Garland, appointed Smith to give the investigation a degree of independence. (Garland can say no to charges.)

The other criminal investigations into Trump are:

Trump’s alleged mishandling of classified documents. Trump was charged with federal crimes in June in that case, and if convicted, he faces years in jail. Smith is leading the prosecution of this in Florida.Trump will be on trial in March in New York on charges that he falsified business records to make hush money payments to an adult-film star during the 2016 presidential campaign.A grand jury was recently seated in Atlanta that is likely to decide soon whether Trump or his allies should be charged with crimes related to his campaign’s efforts to overturn the election results in Georgia. Legal experts say it’s possible Trump is charged with racketeering for allegedly leading a conspiracy to overthrow his election loss there. That’s another serious crime that carries with it jail time.

A grand jury must sign off before prosecutors can charge anyone with a federal crime or serious state crimes. The idea is to have a jury of your peers be a check on the power of prosecutors. And while a grand jury hearing isn’t the same thing as a trial, the jury will listen to the evidence and decide whether anyone should face charges.

The jury’s proceedings are private. Twelve out of 23 must vote in favor of an indictment for the case to go forward. (That differs from the trial, where the jury needs to be unanimous to convict a person of any charges.)

Yes. The Constitution doesn’t explicitly ban people who are charged with crimes — or even people who are convicted of crimes — from running for president. It is actually pretty relaxed about requirements to run for president: just that a candidate is at least 35 years old, is a natural-born U.S. citizen and has lived in the country for at least 14 years.

But if Trump is convicted of federal crimes, he might not be able to vote for himself. And that raises a constitutional question that is murky: If he can’t vote, can he be president? We’re in uncharted territory.

The evidence points to not much. Trump is already twice indicted, and he’s been leading by double digits in the polls in the Republican primary.

After Trump announced he might be indicted again, Republicans almost universally came to his defense. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California, the top elected Republican in Washington, baselessly suggested that Trump might be indicted because his poll numbers in the 2024 presidential race went up. (There’s no evidence that the Biden administration is weaponizing the government with these charges.)

Trump’s top opponent for the Republican nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, didn’t even use the moment to forcefully attack Trump. DeSantis said Trump “should have come out more forcefully” to stop the riot on Jan. 6, but he also suggested he didn’t think Trump acted with criminal intent that day.

That we don’t know. The Justice Department has a long-standing legal opinion that the president can’t pardon himself, but it hasn’t been tested by the courts. (Trump is the first former president indicted, let alone to run for office again.) If Trump wins the White House and hasn’t yet faced trials, he could appoint an attorney general to dismiss the federal cases against him.

If he’s convicted and becomes president, he could try to pardon himself and let the case go all the way to the Supreme Court, McQuade said.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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