Donald Trump is a businessman who served one term as president of the U.S. (January 2017–January 2021) and is campaigning for reelection in 2024 as the GOP frontrunner. He was the first president in U.S. history with no prior experience in government or the military, and by the end of his term in office, he became the first president to be impeached twice.
In keeping with his penchant for unprecedented acts, Trump is also the first former president to be indicted—four times in 2023—first, in New York on 34 felony counts based on falsifying business records and lying about hush-money payments to a porn star; second, by the Department of Justice (DOJ) on 37 criminal counts based on his mishandling of government documents after leaving office; third, again by the DOJ, on four counts of conspiracy and obstruction in conjunction with the insurrection; and fourth, by a grand jury in Fulton County, Georgia, which charged him with 13 criminal counts of racketeering, conspiracy to defraud the state, filing false documents, perjury, and more .
As Trump’s legal battles mount, he continues to capitalize on free media coverage and increase his lead in the crowded field of GOP candidates hoping to win the party’s backing in 2024. Each indictment has also proven to be a huge boon to his fundraising machine as the former president’s ever-loyal base continues its outpouring of cash to help him withstand his purported political persecution. True to form, just days after the announcement of the DOJ’s indictment relative to January 6, the ex-president was making light of his legal jeopardy by quipping that a fourth indictment (which subsequently was served on August 14) would essentially guarantee his presidential win in 2024.
From Businessman to Celebrity
Trump’s business career began with a $1-million loan from his father, New York real estate mogul Fred Trump, in the late 1960s, shortly before he took over his father’s business in 1971 and renamed it the Trump Organization. As its head, he oversaw the redevelopment of ritzy Manhattan buildings and launched hotels and casinos around the country, four of which subsequently declared bankruptcy. From 1996–2015, Trump was a partial owner of multiple beauty pageants and in 2003 he launched The Apprentice, a reality TV show he hosted for 14 seasons.
In 2008, Trump popularized the false and racist “birtherism” myth that President Barack Obama was not a U.S. citizen—the first notable big lie that many consider the launching pad for his 2016 presidential campaign. Despite running a campaign short on substance and policy proposals, and riddled with scandal—including the leak of a 2005 recording in which he makes vulgar comments about women—and despite losing the popular vote to Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), he was elected president in 2016.
In the White House
Almost immediate after assuming office in 2017, Trump implemented a host of divisive right-wing policies that shocked U.S. allies around the world—issuing an executive order to prevent citizens from Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S., abandoning the Iran nuclear agreement, and withdrawing from the Paris climate accords, among many other controversial moves. He also oversaw a crackdown on migrants and asylum seekers crossing the U.S./Mexico border, including a policy of separating children from their parents. In December 2019, he was first impeached for pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to produce dirt on Trump’s political rival Joe Biden in exchange for ongoing military defense support from the U.S.
Escalating Lies About the 2020 Election
During his 2020 reelection campaign, Trump and his allies—including hundreds of government officials throughout the country—worked nonstop to spread misinformation and fear about purported election fraud that would undermine his chances of winning a second term. This included lies about the vulnerability of mail-in ballots, which resulted in Twitter fact-checking and putting warning labels on his tweets. His baseless claims of election fraud escalated after Biden won the presidency with 306 Electoral College votes to Trump’s 232 and by more than 7 million in the popular vote count, where Biden got more votes than any other previous presidential candidate.
Despite the numbers, Trump led a multifaceted effort to overturn the results, enlisting attorneys to pursue legal challenges in various states, spurring on supporters to believe the lie that the election had been “stolen” from him, and pressuring then-Vice President Mike Pence to interfere with the congressional certification of the election on Jan. 6, 2021. Leading up to the insurrection and on the day itself, he used social media to promote the rally at the Ellipse, where he fired up the crowd that went on to attack the Capitol. On Dec. 19, he tweeted the rallying cry: “Be there, will be wild!”
On Jan. 6, 2021, Trump’s escalating lies about a stolen election culminated in the violent attack on the Capitol that sent lawmakers attempting to certify Biden’s victory running for safety and led to five deaths, extensive property damage, and grave concerns about the future of democracy in the U.S.
In January 2021, the House of Representatives impeached Trump a second time, charging him with “incitement of insurrection.” However, the Senate acquitted him again.
In June 2021, the House voted to create a House Select Committee to investigate the attack on the Capitol, which proceeded in parallel with multiple other investigations by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and state officials looking into various forms of wrongdoing.
In August 2022, the FBI recovered more than 100 classified and/or top-secret government documents from Trump’s private residence at Mar-a-Lago after the former president repeatedly refused to abide by the law that requires all government documents produced during a given administration to be delivered to the National Archives when a president leaves office.
In November 2022, just days after many far-right candidates he had endorsed for federal and state offices lost in the midterm elections, Trump announced his bid for reelection in 2024. The DOJ also announced the appointment of a special counsel to oversee two ongoing criminal investigations—of his role in planning and inciting the insurrection and his mishandling of sensitive government documents.
January 6, 2021
- Trump began the day on Jan. 6 by again pressuring Vice President Pence to overturn the results of the Electoral College. At 8:17 a.m., he tweeted: “All Mike Pence has to do is send them back to the state, AND WE WIN. Do it Mike, this is a time for extreme courage!”
- The House Select Committee investigating the attack on the Capitol is investigating calls Trump made to his allies stationed at the Willard Hotel in Washington about strategies to delay the certification of Biden’s Electoral College victory. Calls reportedly took place on Jan. 5 and early on Jan. 6 to Trump confidants including Rudy Giuliani, John Eastman, Boris Epshteyn and Steve Bannon.
- Trump took the stage at the March to Save America rally on the Ellipse at 12 p.m. For the next hour and 12 minutes, he whipped the crowd into a frenzy with lies and exaggerations about fraud in the 2020 election, calling on his supporters to respond. During the speech, he said: “We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
- Prior to taking the stage, Trump reportedly ordered the magnetic metal detectors at the site to be removed despite the known presence of multiple armed protesters in the crowd. According to the congressional testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Trump said: “Take the effing mags away; they’re not here to hurt me.” Hutchinson’s testimony also asserted that after ordering his supporters to storm the Capitol, Trump wanted to join the mob. When the Secret Service tried to prevent him from doing so, the president allegedly lunged for the wheel of the vehicle.
- Once the riot at the Capitol was underway and Trump was watching it on TV, he resisted urgent pleas from White House staff members and other advisors to call off the mob. Instead, he remained cloistered in a dining room of the White House watching Fox News. He then further fanned the flames by tweeting that Vice President Pence “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.”
- As he watched the mob violence on TV, Trump appeared to be enjoying the spectacle and was reluctant to ask his supporters to stop disrupting the election certification process. It wasn’t until more than three hours after he had finished his incendiary speech on the Ellipse that he told the rioters to “go home.”
- In a video address the next day, Trump refused to denounce anyone who attacked Capitol Police and vandalized the Capitol or admit that he had lost the election, stating in outtakes of his address: “I don’t want to say the election is over. I just want to say Congress has certified the results without saying the election is over.”
- Trump continued to support the insurrectionists who tried to overthrow the government on Jan. 6 by paying the legal fees of witnesses called to testify before the House Select Committee. He directed these payments through his Save America PAC, which raised $110 million by the end of February 2022 by peddling the Big Lie. The funds were primarily dispersed to law firms Brand Woodward Law and Abel Bean Law.
The Big Lie
- Trump planted the seeds of the Big Lie well before Election Day. On Aug. 17, 2020, he said he wouldn’t concede if he lost and suggested the election could be stolen. During a Wisconsin rally, Trump said “the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged, remember that.”
- Trump has refused to concede the election and was still reiterating that same grievance at campaign appearances during the 2022 midterms. After the insurrection, he tweeted on Jan. 7: “Even though I totally disagree with the outcome of the election, and the facts bear me out, nevertheless there will be an orderly transition on January 20th.” Trump is the only president in American history to refuse to concede an election.
- Numerous members of the Trump administration and personal advisors have disputed his claims of election fraud. Prominent voices standing up to Trump’s disinformation include his former Attorney General Bill Barr, who said: “I made it clear I did not agree with the idea of saying the election was stolen and putting out this stuff, which I told the president was bullshit.” Others who pushed back include former Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien, his daughter Ivanka Trump, and Trump campaign data expert Matt Oczkowski.
- Following the election, Trump tweeted dozens of times about how the process was fraudulent and the presidency had been “stolen” from him. According to analysis by The New York Times, between Nov. 3 and Nov. 16, 2020, Trump posted more than 300 tweets about the integrity of the election. Many of these messages referenced “widespread voter fraud,” “illegal votes,” and “a stolen election.” A separate report by Issue One concluded that 60% of Trump’s post-election tweets were aimed at undermining Biden’s victory.
- On Jan. 2, 2021, Trump called Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to pressure him to lie about the results of the election in his state. The president pushed debunked conspiracy theories regarding thousands of illegitimate ballots marked for Biden transported to polling places in suitcases in the middle of the night. He then urged Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have, because we won this state.” Rather than admit he had done anything wrong, Trump proclaimed the call was “perfect.”
- As he staged rallies after being banned from Twitter in January 2021, Trump continued to push lies about the 2020 election. At a Michigan rally in April 2022, he said, “We did win. We did win. And you know, if we didn’t, I’d be the first person to stand up and say we didn’t.”
- Trump demanded an election audit in Arizona—and reportedly paid $1 million through his Save America PAC to make it happen. But when the results showed that there was no systemic fraud, he ignored this conclusion and blamed the media for reporting “fake news.” He simply sent out another lie saying: “we won on the Arizona forensic audit yesterday on a level that you wouldn’t believe.”
- Trump also called for audits in states he won, such as Texas. In September 2021, he told Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) to “act now” in setting up a comprehensive audit of the 2020 election results, even though the election showed that he won in Texas by a comfortable margin. He also called on the state legislature to pass a bill that would examine election “irregularities.”
Post-2020 Election Subversion
- Trump supported the July 2022 ruling by the Wisconsin Supreme Court proclaiming that drop boxes for absentee ballots are illegal. He then used the ruling as a ruse to demand that the 2020 election be “decertified,” a move that would be illegal.
- In 2022, Trump endorsed candidates who support the Big Lie for state offices with the power to oversee results in future elections. Many of these candidates are members of the America First Secretary of State Coalition. He supported Mark Fincham, who lied about the impact of illegal ballot harvesting in Yuma County, Arizona, for secretary of state in Arizona. Kristina Karamo, his choice for secretary of state in Michigan, accused state poll workers of systemic misconduct and alleged that votes for Biden were illegally delivered in the middle of the night. Both candidates lost in the midterms, as did most other Trump-endorsed secretary of state candidates.
Lawsuits and Investigations
Trump and his allies continue to face multiple lawsuits and investigations based on inciting the insurrection and other attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Key cases include:
- As of November 2022, two ongoing investigations launched by the Department of Justice are continuing under the supervision of Special Counsel Jack Smith. The first is the investigation into whether any person or entity unlawfully interfered with the transfer of power or the certification of the Electoral College vote following the 2020 presidential election. On April 27, 2023, former Vice President Mike Pence testified for several hours to the grand jury hearing the case. The second involves classified government documents and other presidential records Trump held illegally at his home in Florida and refused to return to the National Archives as required by law.
- In April 2021, 10 Democratic members of the House joined Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and the NAACP in a lawsuit against Trump as well as his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, the Proud Boys, and the Oath Keepers for conspiring to stage a riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6. The lawsuit alleges that the defendants violated the Ku Klux Klan Act, which was originally drafted to prosecute domestic terrorism perpetrated against African Americans by hate groups such as the Klan. The lawsuit is pending after a District Court for the District of Columbia denied Trump’s motion to dismiss in February 2022.
- Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) filed a lawsuit against Trump, as well as Donald Trump Jr., Rudy Giuliani, and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), for being “wholly responsible for the injury and destruction” on Jan. 6. Swalwell argues that the words used by the defendants at the March to Save America amounted to threats of violence and coercion that directly led to the deadly insurrection. The lawsuit is pending after the District Court for the District of Columbia denied Trump’s motion to dismiss in February 2022.
- Trump is facing lawsuits from Capitol Police and Washington, D.C. Metro Police officers. They allege that he was negligent and personally responsible for inciting the insurrection. In August 2022, a judge rejected Trump’s motion to dismiss several lawsuits based on assertions that he has immunity because his actions fell within his presidential duties.
- In January 2021, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine announced a criminal investigation into Trump for his role in the insurrection. No charges have been filed against Trump but Racine did sue the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys for their actions on Jan. 6.
- Fani Willis, the district attorney of Fulton County, Georgia, is investigating Trump for various efforts to overturn election results in Georgia. Launched in January 2021, her investigation is focusing on several areas: the Jan. 2, 2021 call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in which Trump pressured him into distorting election results in his favor; testimony that Giuliani and other Trump allies gave to Georgia legislators about election fraud; the fake electors scheme; and an elections systems breach involving Trump lawyers in Coffee County, Georgia. The investigation has resulted in a special grand jury to consider charges such as solicitation to commit election fraud and knowingly making false statements to state officials. In September 2022, Willis said, “The allegations are very serious. If indicted and convicted, people are facing prison sentences.” She expects to announce any indictments in the case in summer 2023.