Here's how Donald Trump could theoretically run for president and govern the US from prison, according to 9 legal scholars

The constitution does not prevent prisoners from running for president. Joe Raedle/Getty Images; Samantha Lee/Insider
The Constitution won't stop Trump from running, even if he's behind bars.
But getting elected and running the country from prison would be complicated.
Trump says the FBI searched his Mar-a-Lago residence -- and further investigations are looming.
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Imagine: It's 9 p.m. on January 13, 2026—a Tuesday—and you tune into your favorite cable news network to catch the President's annual State of the Union address.
But this year, the President isn't driving a bulletproof limousine from the White House to the US Capitol. Gone are the traditionally attended hundreds of congressmen. Instead, the Commander-in-Chief wears an orange jumpsuit, his message being zoomed from his prison cell to lawmakers and into your living room.
Yes, this scenario is just as far-fetched and offbeat – in extreme cases.
But it's also possible, legal experts told Insider, especially given former President Donald Trump's mounting legal woes and his expressed desire to retake the White House in 2024.
Those legal troubles dramatically worsened on Aug. 8 when the FBI reportedly searched his Mar-a-Lago, Florida home.
The Justice Department is currently reviewing Trump's efforts to overturn the outcome of the 2020 US election. The National Archives also asked the department in February to investigate whether Trump broke the law by taking official government records to Mar-a-Lago after leaving the White House. And for months, the Jan. 6 House Select Committee has been building a highly publicized case that Trump was intimately involved in the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol and did nothing for hours to stop it.
If Trump ended up in jail, nothing in the constitution would stop him from running another White House run, according to nine legal experts polled by Insider.
The Constitution only requires that presidential candidates be natural US citizens who are at least 35 years old and have been residents of the US for at least 14 years. And virtually anyone—even fictional characters—can take the first step toward the White House by filing organizational paperwork with the Federal Election Commission.
"If he happens to be in prison by the time of the next presidential election, the fact that he is in prison will not prevent him from running," said Michael Gerhardt, professor of constitutional law at the University of North Carolina's School of Law Chapel Hill.
Running out of prison for president has actually happened before—twice.
Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs was imprisoned in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta in 1920 when he received about 3.5% of the national vote. President Warren G. Harding later pardoned Debs, who had been convicted of treason under the Espionage Act for his vocal opposition to US involvement in World War I.
Lyndon LaRouche also ran for president from a prison cell in 1992 after being convicted of mail fraud in 1988.
Whether Trump could run for president from prison — he has not been charged with a crime, although he has been the subject of investigations at the local and state levels — is therefore an easy question to answer, according to legal scholars.
From there things get more complicated.
Campaigning out of prison would be complicated. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis
Behind bars in the election campaign
Even campaigning from a minimum-security prison would be stilted at best and nearly impossible at worst — especially for a candidate like Trump, who thrives on in-person rallies that draw crowds in the five figures.
Somehow, convincing tens of millions of Americans that an incarcerated seventy-year-old was fit to lead the free world would prove to be an equally daunting challenge.
But let's say voters decided to vote for an imprisoned Trump anyway.
From prison, Trump "would be subject to the same rules as other prisoners, which could limit their communication and their ability to show up at events," said Barbara McQuade, a University of Michigan law professor and former US attorney. "He would have to rely on proxies to promote him."
Then there are the chaos-making unknowns: Would Trump use his powers to make his life more convenient? Would he try to forgive himself? How would he defend himself if, say, he faced a third impeachment trial?
Trump has claimed that the investigation into his actions, as well as his two impeachment trials, are part of a "witch hunt" against him and that he has committed no crime.
"Our country is broken, our elections are rigged, corrupt and stolen, our prosecutors are politicized, and I just have to keep fighting as I have for the past five years!" Trump said in a statement in May.
Asked if Trump would consider running for office in 2024 if he were incarcerated, Trump spokesman Jason Miller told Insider in a May 25 email, "That's rightfully the dumbest press request I've made in 2021.” Miller has since left his position as Trump's spokesman to found a tech startup.
A 2020 presidential election.Sean Gallup/Getty Images
There are many scores for accessing ballots
If an imprisoned Trump ran for president and won the Republican Party nomination in 2024, that alone would not guarantee that his name would appear on every state's ballot that November.
State legislatures, particularly in Democratic-run states, could seek to pass legislation that would make it harder for Trump to qualify.
As of February 2017, 18 states had introduced bills requiring presidential candidates to disclose income tax returns in order to stand for election in the general election, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. These bills made headlines for the Democrats, but didn't get very far.
Efforts continued during the 2020 election. The Illinois Senate, for example, voted to force Trump to release his personal income tax returns for five years -- he has notoriously refused to release them publicly -- or be banned from running in the state's presidential election. The measure never vacated the Illinois House and therefore has not become law.
Ballot access measures almost always result in litigation. That's because the U.S. Constitution sets the requirements for running for president, and changing or adding to those requirements would almost certainly require the ratification of a constitutional amendment -- a feat not achieved in almost 30 years.
And any presidential candidate who meets the requirements of the Constitution and then submits the number of qualified voter signatures required by each state should be eligible to appear on the ballot.
It's much easier for states to restrict access to the elections for state-level candidates, like former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Trump sidekick who was pardoned by the president in February 2020. He served eight years in federal prison after being convicted on public corruption charges. Blagojevich is barred from holding any local or state office. But Federal Office is still fair game.
A president could theoretically deliver a State of the Union address from a prison cell. Andrew Harnik/AP
"Nuclear football" in a neighboring cell?
In the Oval Office, Trump conducted business at the ornate Resolute Desk. From prison he would probably have little more than a metal table.
But Trump could likely do much of the CEO's job from a prison cell, with some lodgings, according to legal scholars.
First, he could take the oath of office there, since nothing in the constitution requires a president to be in a specific place, said Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard University.
President Lyndon B. Johnson took his oath of allegiance aboard Air Force One in 1963 after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
After taking the oath, Trump could theoretically do many of the things that presidents typically do from the Oval Office from a jail cell, Tribe said. He could issue pardons, introduce bills, issue executive orders, sign laws, and make political appointments.
"Some presidents have referred to the White House as a prison, but the Constitution does not state that that is the only prison you can occupy to serve as president," Tribe added.
A constitutional requirement for a President is a regular State of the Union address before Congress.
However, they do not have to be handed in personally. From 1801 to 1913, Presidents delivered written messages to Congress instead of making personal speeches.
So it's possible Trump could deliver the address via Zoom while wearing orange prison garb, Tribe said.
Another logistical question: what would happen to the "nuclear football," a briefcase meant to stay near the president that contains the codes needed for an attack, Tribe said.
"Would the military aide carrying the briefcase be in an adjacent cell?" he asked rhetorically.
It's quite likely that US Secret Service agents would protect a detained Trump, according to former federal law enforcement officials.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul would have little incentive to bail Donald Trump out of a legal backlog.David Dee Delgado/Getty Images
Forgive power
Being the president comes with some powers that could help Trump improve his situation, scientists said.
But that depends a lot on where he lands.
If he ended up in federal prison, he would likely have more control over his fate. He could try to issue a presidential self-pardon, but that has never been tested and it is legally unclear if that would stand up in court.
As President, Trump would technically oversee the Federal Bureau of Prisons. So if he were in federal custody, Trump could be looking for loopholes to improve his setup.
The story goes on

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