Thinking the unthinkable: What if Donald Trump stood trial in office?

By Harlan Ullman
Supporters of former President Donald Trump hold flags outside the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta on August 24 before Trump surrendered on criminal charnges. Photo by Anthony Stalcup/UPI
1 of 2 | Supporters of former President Donald Trump hold flags outside the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta on August 24 before Trump surrendered on criminal charnges. Photo by Anthony Stalcup/UPI | License Photo

I raised some terrifying "what ifs" last week that even seven or eight years ago were deemed unthinkable. But that field is so fertile and ripe, that a second or even third column would not exhaust the range of these now possible, or at least plausible, scenarios.

A convicted felon being elected president from jail was one.


But suppose the trials for Donald Trump were deferred until after the 2024 election simply because of the massive scheduling problems. A defendant running for president might also be argued as a reason for delay. It is 2025 and Trump is in the White House.

Suppose the president had to stand trial while in office and was found guilty in the Georgia case on a conspiracy charge to change the outcome of the 2020 election and sentenced to prison. The president has no pardon authority as this is not a federal case.


Trump could refuse to comply with the Georgia law. Georgia has no way to compel compliance or to arrest the president. Further, suppose this case made its way to the Supreme Court, which validated the conviction and sentence for imprisonment. The Supreme Court has no army or police force. The president does.

Imagine the crisis that would ensue if the president repeatedly refused to comply with the law. Would the cabinet or vice president have the courage to invoke the 25th Amendment on the grounds that the president was incapacitated by incarceration? And suppose the president still refused to stand down?

If someone wrote a novel or a screenplay based on this plot, would it ever had a chance of being published or made into a movie? Probably not. Yet, here is where we are.

A more immediate possibility is not just a government shutdown that conceivably could have a lengthy duration. The House is beginning an impeachment inquiry to determine if President Joe Biden committed any "high crimes and misdemeanors." And House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is fighting to save his job.

Suppose the motion to vacate the speaker, i.e., calling for a vote of no confidence, is made? Last time, it took 15 ballots to elect McCarthy speaker. It is not impossible that the House could take longer to choose its speaker, leading to gridlock and possibly extending any government shutdown for weeks or more. And if it were not McCarthy, what Republican might be acceptable as speaker?


McCarthy could be forced to do the unthinkable. He may have to turn to Democrats for enough votes to keep the chair. But at what cost and what concessions would McCarthy have to make to ensure continued Democratic support? And suppose McCarthy then went back on his word?

The irony is that a MAGA-supporting Republican would be forced to abandon his ideological convictions. This means the Democrats would win de facto control of the House and, along with the Senate, both branches of government. Think of how a Biden White House could exploit this change of fortunes and what this would do to Trump's chances in 2024 if he won the nomination?

The fundamental question is how desperate is McCarthy to retain the speakership. And what would be the long-term ramifications? No doubt Trump and other MAGA Republicans would excommunicate him. Unthinkable? Maybe not.

Given how China has become public foreign enemy number one, surely to a supermajority in Congress and to many Americans, suppose Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping pulled off a Richard Nixon-Mao Zedong rapprochement? The Malta meeting last weekend between National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and China's foreign minister Wang Yi could have been the precursor, with Wang tentatively scheduled to visit Washington in the next weeks or months.


In his trip to India's G20 meeting and then to Vietnam, Biden went out of his way to explain that the United States is not out "to contain China"; that America is "not looking to hurt China"; and that "we are all better off if China does well." These were unmissable signals that Biden is seeking to ease tensions and reduce the friction with China on the entirely sensible and reasonable grounds that any conflict is in no one's interests.

Unlike Nixon, a devoted anti-communist who could pull this off, aided by the need to counterbalance the Soviet Union then, Biden carries no such political bulletproof vest. He will face the "slings and arrows" from Republican and Democratic critics. Yet, this volte face may no longer be unthinkable. And it may be imperative.

Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist, a senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large." Follow him @harlankullman. The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.


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