In a case involving supposed hush-money payments, a Manhattan investigative grand jury has decided to indict former President Donald Trump. This development leads to an important question regarding the 2024 presidential race: if convicted of a crime, can the former president still pursue the White House?
Courts have not entirely resolved this issue, but the general consensus is that neither an indictment nor a conviction would legally prevent Trump from being elected. In the past, not only have convicted criminals run for federal office, but at least one did so with some success: Eugene Debs, a socialist candidate for the White House in the early 20th century, garnered over 900,000 votes in a 1920 presidential campaign he conducted while imprisoned for a conviction of espionage.
The reason the general opinion is that a conviction would not impede Trump’s attempt to return to the White House lies in the legal argument that only the Constitution sets the rules that candidates must fulfill to become president. The Constitution establishes only three conditions for a person to be president, according to constitutional lawyer Rafael Penalver: one must be a natural-born U.S. citizen, have resided in the country for at least 14 years, and be 35 years of age or older.
“It is widely accepted that the requirements for being president are enumerated in the Constitution,” said Derek Muller, a professor of Election Law at the University of Iowa Law School, in a conversation with CNN. “And the mere fact of having been convicted of a crime is not one of them, and states and Congress cannot add anything to those qualifications.”
Penalver also pointed out that the U.S. Constitution never states that being convicted of a crime or being indicted or even serving a prison sentence can prevent someone from aspiring or serving as president. He described this as a very “sui generis” feature of the United States. In other words, according to the expert, it is “theoretically feasible” for a person to govern even in an orange jumpsuit.
Muller, on the other hand, acknowledged that a criminal conviction “could be a practical barrier, it could be a barrier in fundraising,” but in all cases, “these are political issues, not legal ones.” As the 2024 election approaches, Trump’s legal challenges will undoubtedly continue to make headlines, but their impact on his potential candidacy will depend on political, rather than legal, considerations.