Donald Trump may be the first former president in history to be indicted on criminal charges. But he is hardly the first political candidate — or even the first presidential one — to run for office after being charged with or convicted of crimes.
American history is rife with them. Some were flat-out rogues. Some turned out to be wrongly accused. Others sought to convince voters that they deserved forgiveness, redemption and another term in office. Several succeeded.
Under federal law, the indictments against Trump, issued Thursday by a New York grand jury but still under seal, present no impediment to his ongoing campaign to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. Indeed, Trump is hoping to use his legal peril to his political advantage, painting himself as a wrongly accused outsider fighting valiantly against a corrupt status quo.
“President Trump raises over $4 million in 24 hours after indictment in Alvin Bragg witch hunt,” his campaign crowed in a fundraising email Friday.
One of the most recent presidential candidates to run while under indictment was Rick Perry, a former governor of Texas, who sought the Republican nomination in the 2016 election. A Travis County grand jury indicted Perry on two felonies in 2014, charging that he threatened to cut off funding to the office of a Democratic district attorney in an effort to pressure her to leave office.
Perry, who announced his campaign in June 2015, dropped out of the race three months later. In the end, the indictment seemed to pose less of a problem for him than the fact that he was running in a crowded GOP field that included Trump. He also struggled to overcome voters’ lingering memories of his unsuccessful presidential run in the previous cycle, in which he infamously forgot, during a debate, one of the three federal agencies he planned to eliminate. The indictments were eventually dismissed.
In 1920, Eugene Debs, a Midwestern socialist leader, ran for president while locked up at a federal penitentiary in Atlanta. He had been convicted under the federal Sedition Act for giving an anti-war speech a few months before Armistice Day, the end of World War I. Campaign lapel pins and other paraphernalia played up what supporters believed to be his unjust imprisonment: “For President — Convict No. 9653,” one of them declared.
Debs received 897,704 votes, putting him at a distant third behind Warren G. Harding, the Republican winner, and James M. Cox, the second-place Democrat. Harding ordered Debs released from prison toward the end of 1921.
Lyndon LaRouche, a perennial fringe candidate who ran for president eight times starting in 1976, was convicted in the late 1980s on federal conspiracy and mail fraud charges. He ran two doomed campaigns from prison: one for a House of Representatives seat and one for president.
Marion Barry, the colorful mayor of Washington, D.C., was convicted in 1990 on a cocaine charge, only to make a remarkable comeback, winning his fourth mayor’s race in 1994.
Washington voters, including many Black people, looked beyond the ignominy of his arrest because Barry, also Black, had amassed a long track record of addressing the needs of the city’s most historically neglected communities, said Tom Sherwood, a veteran Washington journalist who co-wrote a biography of him. “Barry did something that no other leader before him did,” Sherwood said. “He embraced the poor sides of the town.”
In Louisiana, flamboyant former Gov. Edwin Edwards, who spent eight years in prison on corruption charges, tried, and failed, to mount a political comeback with a run for Congress in 2014.
Voters in New Orleans were more forgiving of City Council member Oliver Thomas, who was imprisoned after pleading guilty in 2007 to taking bribes but was returned to the council in 2021. Thomas spent years trying to come to grips with his transgressions both privately and publicly; at one point, he even played himself in a theatrical production based on his downfall.
Clancy DuBos, a New Orleans political analyst, said that Thomas earned back voters’ trust by facing up to his guilt and then engaging in extensive volunteer and community service work. “He’s seen as someone who’s fallen, but he’s done a complete arc of redemption,” said DuBos. He thinks Thomas could one day be mayor.
In an interview Friday, Thomas, a Democrat, said that from his perspective, Trump seemed to have done very little soul-searching over his myriad transgressions. “The difference with President Trump is, he wouldn’t look at himself as being part of the problem,” Thomas said. “He’d look at the problem as being the system.”
Voters in Bridgeport, Connecticut, found it in their hearts to forgive Joseph P. Ganim, the Democratic mayor who was convicted on federal corruption charges in the early 2000s. Ganim returned to the mayor’s office in 2015 after promising that he had cleaned up his act — even hiring, as a top adviser, an FBI agent who was part of the prosecution team that sent him to prison.
Ganim’s redemption arc only went so far, however: In 2018, he was trounced in a Democratic primary race for Connecticut governor.
In Illinois, Rod Blagojevich is still trying to get back in the game. The former governor — and former inmate — announced in 2021 that he was suing the state of Illinois in federal court in an effort to overturn the state legislature’s decision to bar him from holding elective office. Blagojevich was released after serving eight years of a 14-year sentence after Trump, as president, granted him clemency. The lawsuit is pending.
One of the most remarkable second acts of late concerns Derrick Evans, a former member of the West Virginia House of Delegates. Evans resigned from his seat after filming himself entering the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021, as part of the pro-Trump mob trying to stop Congress from certifying the election victory of Joe Biden.
Evans later pleaded guilty to a civil disorder charge and was sentenced to three months in jail.
Today, he is running for Congress. His campaign website notes that he is married to his college sweetheart and asserts that the 2020 election was stolen.
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