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Could Trump govern from behind bars?

Set for the White House or the Big House? Maybe both. Stephanie Keith/Getty

Since Donald Trump was arraigned for the second time on Tuesday, “an absurd question keeps nagging at me”, says Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times. Could a US president govern from behind bars? Because for now, Trump seems to be moving in two directions: it is looking increasingly likely he will be the first former president convicted of a felony, and also increasingly likely he will win the Republican nomination for president. Betting markets give him a 22% chance of going on and actually being elected.

Of course, Trump may catch a break – he’s being tried by a Florida jury, and just one die-hard could refuse to convict. But as his own attorney general, William Barr, put it, reflecting on the mountain of evidence: “If even half of it is true, then he’s toast.” And recent defendants in less serious cases have ended up with “substantial jail time”. Just this month a former Air Force officer was sentenced to three years for keeping classified documents, despite pleading guilty and therefore presumably receiving leniency. If Trump is convicted, there’s no law that stops him running for president. (The socialist Eugene Debs famously campaigned from prison in 1920, winning nearly a million votes.) If recent polling is anything to go by, prosecution might even help him in the Republican primaries. And all it would take to wobble Joe Biden would be a recession, an oil price hike or a bad fall – all of which are perfectly possible. It might seem absurd, but a president behind bars is no longer unimaginable.