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How Donald Trump Could Run For President From Jail

Donald Trump
President of the United States Donald Trump speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.

The question seems silly, but it keeps coming up. Could Donald Trump run for president, and actually serve as president, from prison?

Technically, yes.

“Picture this,” Business Insider proposes, “It’s 9 p.m. on January 13, 2026 – a Tuesday – and you tune in to your favorite cable news network to watch the president’s annual State of the Union address. But this year the president doesn’t take a bulletproof limo from the White House to the US Capitol…Instead, the commander in chief is wearing an orange jumpsuit, his message streamed to lawmakers and into your living room via Zoom from his prison cell.”

It’s an absurd notion. It’s not going to happen.

But yes, technically, it is possible.

Were Trump to find himself in prison, nothing in the US Constitution would prohibit him from either running for, or serving as, president. The Constitution is clear on what makes an individual eligible to serve as president: candidates must be natural born US citizens who are at least 35 years old and have been US residents for at least 14 years.

“If [Trump] happens to be in prison at the time of the next presidential election, the fact that he’s in prison will not prevent him from running,” Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, said.

It’s funny – I suspect that in a situation where Trump was incarcerated, and still chose to run for president, liberals who typically advocate for criminal justice reform and restoring the rights of incarcerated individuals, etc., would be inclined to cry foul.

Meanwhile, hardline, lock ‘em away and throw away the key conservatives would tell you straight faced that Trump should be allowed to run. I have a feeling this absurd, Trump-in-prison hypothetical, would highlight the manner in which so many voters value partisanship over principle.

I keep calling the premise absurd. Maybe I shouldn’t. It’s happened before.

In 1920, Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs was locked up in an Atlanta prison when he won 3.5 percent of the national vote. Debs had been incarcerated after being convicted of treason under the Espionage Act for his vocal opposition to US involvement in World War One. President Warren G. Harding pardoned Debs, thankfully.

Debs wasn’t the only one to run for president from office. Lyndon LaRouche ran from prison in 1992, where he was serving time for mail fraud. LaRouche was not a viable candidate, of course.

Would Trump be a viable candidate from prison?

Trump thrives on in-person rallies and the spotlight and television appearances and daily controversy. Sitting in prison would severely inhibit Trump’s ability to “be Trump.” This all goes without saying, right? Running a presidential campaign from prison is an outrageous premise; any campaign run from prison would be dogshit! And what would being incarcerated say to voters about the individual? In Trump’s case, it would confirm what people decided about him nearly ten years ago. Liberals would say ‘I told you he was a crook.’ MAGA would say ‘I told you the left was on a Trump witch hunt.’ And mainstream conservatives would say ‘I cannot believe we have not been able to move past Trump as a party…the guy is in prison and he’s still running our party…how!?’

Trump is facing down several lawsuits and investigations. The business practices of the Trump Organization, Trump’s behavior on January 6th, Trump’s handling of sensitive documents – they all have the potential to cause legal headaches for Trump. But don’t expect him to serve time in prison anytime soon (prison is for poor people, right Bill Cosby?).

And if Trump does end up in prison, don’t expect him to run a serious campaign from behind bars.

Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. 

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Harrison Kass is a Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon School of Law, and New York University’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. He lives in Oregon and regularly listens to Dokken.