For the first time in American history, a former President has been criminally indicted. A Manhattan grand jury voted on Thursday to prosecute Donald Trump on charges related to paying hush money to a former porn star, setting up a complicated and explosive legal battle as Trump vies for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
At the heart of the inquiry is whether Trump is criminally responsible for payments made to Stormy Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, following allegations from Trump’s former lawyer that Trump knowingly approved the deal and falsified payment records. Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg’s office invited Trump to testify before a grand jury earlier this month in the case. Trump declined the offer.
One of Trump’s lawyers, Susan R. Necheles, told TIME that former President Trump is expected to turn himself in on Tuesday to be arraigned in State Supreme Court in Manhattan.
The indictment, which has not yet been made public, comes after Trump claimed on March 18 that he would be arrested by Bragg the following Tuesday, telling his supporters on his social media platform Truth Social to “protest, take our nation back.” Trump’s entreaty galvanized many in the conservative movement to rush to his defense, with House Republican lawmakers vowing to investigate Bragg.
When the DA did not charge Trump last week, some pundits and legal analysts began to speculate that Bragg had gotten cold feet. That conjecture was amplified Wednesday when Politico reported the grand jury was set to take a weeks-long hiatus.
Yet on Thursday, the grand jury voted to indict Trump, meaning he will have to travel to New York in the coming days to face the charges. Shortly after the news broke, the former president called the indictment “political persecution” in a statement.
“From the time I came down the golden escalator at Trump Tower, and even before I was sworn in as your President of the United States, the Radical Left Democrats—the enemy of the hard-working men and women of this Country—have been engaged in a Witch-Hunt to destroy the Make America Great Again movement.” Trump’s statement said, referring to Bragg as a “disgrace” who was “hand-picked and funded by George Soros.” Trump went on to suggest the charges would have a boomerang effect in the next election: “The Witch-Hunt will backfire massively on Joe Biden.”
The Daniels case comes amid multiple other criminal and civil inquiries into alleged misconduct, including Trump’s unauthorized removal of classified material from the White House and attempts to overturn the 2020 election. This is Trump’s first indictment after half a century of tangles with federal law enforcement. The case is sure to become a dominant story line in American politics in the months ahead, spurring an unprecedented legal spectacle.
Here’s what to know.
What is the Stormy Daniels case?
The inquiry began nearly five years ago after Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to illegal campaign contributions. Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison for organizing payments leading up to the 2016 election to Clifford and another woman, Karen McDougal. Both of them, in return, agreed not to publicly disclose their personal relationships with Trump.
Clifford has said she and Trump had a sexual relationship in 2006; the former President has denied the affair. Clifford reached out to National Enquirer in 2016, proposing exclusive rights to her story, but rather than buying it, executives at the Enquirer connected Clifford with Cohen to organize a payout.
Cohen admitted to paying Clifford $130,000 in the final days of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. He was later reimbursed in monthly installments, which the Justice Department noted were disguised as payments for legal services that never existed. The former Trump attorney is expected to testify before the grand jury.
What are the charges Bragg is pursuing?
Bragg has declined to comment on inviting Trump to testify, but according to former prosecutors and legal scholars, the District Attorney could potentially pursue charges for falsifying business records, which would hinge on Trump’s allegedly improper payments to Cohen. Cohen himself has claimed that Trump knew about the falsely labeled payments, making that a possible basis for the charge.
If the prosecution can prove that Trump intended to conceal another crime via falsified records, the DA could potentially charge Trump with a felony; the other alleged crime would likely relate to campaign finance violations, as prosecutors could argue that the payout to Clifford was an improper campaign donation engineered to help his presidential prospects.
Bringing an indictment would be an “aggressive move,” says Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor. “They’re bringing a case that is out of the ordinary. It’s rare for payments of this type to be the subject of criminal charges. There is a risk that not only they will potentially lose at trial, but there’s also a risk on appeal, that the New York courts could decide that this is not properly charged.”
What happens now that Trump has been charged?
He will have his day in court. Trump will likely be asked to come to Manhattan to turn himself in. He would be booked into jail. A mug shot will be taken and he will be fingerprinted. Given Trump’s substantial ties to the community and his ongoing 2024 presidential campaign, the judge is unlikely to deem him a flight risk and will probably immediately release him on bond, Mariotti says.
Trump is likely to plead not guilty, setting off an arduous legal battle.
Mariotti predicts that Cohen would be a key factual witness, given his central role in the transaction. But he’s also likely to be attacked by Trump’s attorneys. Cohen served prison time on multiple charges, including tax evasion, campaign finance violations, and lying to Congress. “The defense is going to criticize him and point the finger at him,” Mariotti says.
What does this mean for the other investigations into Trump?
It’s not clear this will have a material effect on the other main probes into the former president, such as Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’s investigation into whether Trump criminally disrupted the 2020 election; the Department of Justice probe into his removal of classified documents and alleged obstruction of federal efforts to retrieve them; and special counsel Jack Smith’s inquiry into Trump’s alleged efforts to prevent the peaceful transfer of power in 2020.
Trump will likely use any indictments to gin up grievance among the MAGA faithful over a shared sense of persecution. “It is surely a unique political context,” says Harry Litman, a former federal prosecutor. “Trump’s essential promise that he’s going to turn it around into a big ‘I am your warrior, I’m your justice’ campaign issue.”
Mariotti says that hiccups in one case could serve as fuel for Trump to discredit any of the others. “You don’t just have to consider its impact on that one case,” he emphasizes. “You have to consider the impact and all the cases. So it’s like playing 3-D chess.”
—With reporting by Brian Bennett/Washington.
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