Can you run for president from prison? Yes, it’s been done before

Following the news that former President Trump faces his second indictment in a year – this one after being accused of mishandling classified documents – it remains unclear how his presidential campaign will be impacted. 

Trump’s legal troubles will likely galvanize critics who say Trump lied and cheated his way to the top but simultaneously embolden supporters who feel the Republican is being unfairly targeted by Democratic prosecutors. 

And, of course, the former president is innocent until proven guilty. But even the possibility of prison time isn’t likely going to put a huge cog in the wheel of Trump’s path to the White House. 

In fact, not only can Trump still run for president while under investigation by several law enforcement agencies, he can still run for president if he actually does indeed find himself locked away in a cell. 

Yes, Trump can still run for president

Nothing in the U.S. Constitution prohibits candidates with criminal records from holding office. 

The only qualifications needed to run is to be at least 35 years old and be a natural-born citizen who has lived in the country for at least 14 years. 

However, according to Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, a person who has engaged in an insurrection or rebellion against the United States cannot hold office unless overcome with a two-thirds vote from Congress. 

Can Trump pardon himself? It’s complicated

The big question is whether or not Trump can pardon himself if he does get elected. Unfortunately there is no definitive answer to this question as the Constitution does not explicitly address this. 

Some scholars say a self-pardon collides with other provisions of the Constitution or even fundamental principles of law. The Constitution’s text — affording the president "power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment" — can be read to suggest that the Founding Fathers envisioned some sort of limitations on a president’s pardon power. It could also mean the power is to be used on someone else, not yourself.

The consensus seems to be split down the middle, with some scholars arguing that a self-pardon can’t happen because no person can or should be the judge in their own case. 

"You could say, implicit in the definition of a pardon or implicit in the notion of granting a pardon — because the Constitution uses the word ‘grant’ — is that it’s two separate people," Brian Kalt, a law professor at Michigan State University told the Associated Press in 2020. "You can’t grant something to yourself. You can’t pardon yourself."

But other historians and scholars say the constitutional pardon power is very broadly worded for a reason. 

It’s been done before

While it seems that many things Trump does or is involved with are unprecedented, running for office from prison isn’t unthinkable. 

The most well known example of this is when, in 1920, American Socialist, political activist and labor leader Eugene V. Debs ran and lost the 1920 presidential election.

Debs received nearly a million votes – or 3.5% of the popular vote – while serving a 10-year federal sentence for his efforts to get people to resist the World War I draft, Smithsonian Magazine reported. Debs was arrested two years prior to the election and charged with 10 counts of sedition. 

Debs had run for president four times before, but it was reported that his fifth and final campaign was promoted with campaign buttons that read "For President Convict No. 9653."

According to a report from the Washington Post, Debs wrote in a statement saying "I thank the capitalist masters for putting me here. They know where I belong under their criminal corrupting system. It is the only compliment they could pay me." 

Oh yeah, Joe Exotic is running for president from prison

The man the internet won’t allow you to forget announced his candidacy to run for president earlier this year. 

Joe "Exotic" Maldonado, also known as "The Tiger King" from the popular Netflix documentary series, was incarcerated in 2018 on murder-for-hire charges. He’s running as a Democrat. 

"Put aside that I am gay, that I am in prison for now, that I used drugs in the past, that I had more then one boyfriend at once and that Carole hates my guts. This all has not a thing to do with me being able to be your voice. The best thing you have going for supporting me is that I am used to fighting my whole life just to get by. I am broke, they have taken everything I ever worked for away, and it's time we take this country back," Maldonado writes on his campaign website

The Associated Press contributed to this story. It was reported from Los Angeles.