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Donald Trump
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Don’t Bet On Trump Going to Prison

The former president has many possible futures ahead, but just because he’s a convicted felon doesn’t mean prison must be among them.

Will Donald Trump be the first president to go to prison?

Trump was convicted on 34 felony counts on Thursday, each of which carries a potential four-year sentence. But legal experts interviewed by NOTUS said they wouldn’t expect Trump to serve time behind bars, in part because of the former president’s clean criminal history.

“It would be highly unlikely that Trump would actually be sentenced to state prison,” said former Watergate prosecutor Philip Lacovara. “It might be nothing more than home confinement with an ankle monitor that would keep him, at least if he’s not elected president, confined to his New York apartment.”

The question of what to do about Trump’s sentencing is the latest in a long string of mind-bending legal quandaries that surround the court cases brought against the former president. While the law sees every citizen of the United States as the same, the logistics of prosecuting — and now, sentencing — a former president are far more complicated than for the average citizen.

Manhattan Justice Juan Merchan has set a sentencing hearing for July 11, just a few days before the Republican National Convention is set to begin in Milwaukee. After that, Trump is expected to keep juggling the multiple court proceedings against him while campaigning for president.

The guilty verdict in New York could further complicate Trump’s campaigning — though it’s not expected to keep Trump off the trail entirely. Trump will have the option to appeal his case, and while the case is being appealed, it’s likely his sentence would be stayed, leaving the former president free to hit the campaign trail.

Because he has not been convicted of a crime before, Trump is unlikely to receive a harsh sentence, legal experts said. He has been found guilty for a series of nonviolent felonies that, while they can carry up to four years in prison each, are less serious than other felonies in New York. New York has meanwhile put emphasis in recent years on lighter sentencing for such felonies — sentencing reform that many Republicans have attacked for being soft on crime but that, in this case, could help keep the former president avoid prison.

Trump does not get special treatment under the law because he’s a former president, but there would be myriad logistical considerations to take into account if he were sentenced to prison that ultimately make it less likely he will go, said former Secret Service officer Donald Mihalek.

“What would you accomplish by putting him in prison other than spending taxpayers’ money?” said Mihalek. State prisons are ill-equipped to handle high-profile people like Trump, and the president would likely need a wing of a federal prison in order to get the proper Secret Service protection he is allocated as a former president, Mihalek said.

There are plenty of options for Trump that do not involve prison time: He could be placed under house arrest in New York or potentially Florida or placed on parole. He could have to wear an ankle monitor or even be asked to do community service. A judge could also sentence him but suspend the sentence.

Merchan will have significant leeway. One thing that will count against Trump as he heads toward sentencing: his repeated insistence that the trial has been nothing more than a witch hunt. That will likely be seen as avoiding taking responsibility for a crime, said New York criminal defense lawyer Jonathan Rosenberg.

“The judge will look down upon him at sentencing for not taking responsibility, that is a major factor in sentencing” in New York, Rosenberg said. “That gives the judge cause, or reason, under our case law to give a person a prison sentence.”

But Trump’s sentencing will also provide an opportunity for mercy, said criminal defense attorney Shanlon Wu.

“It will be interesting to see what the D.A.’s office asks for,” Wu said. “Normally, they would ask for some jail time. We’ll see if they ease up.”


Maggie Severns is a reporter at NOTUS. John T. Seward and Casey Murray are NOTUS reporters and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellows.