Donald Trump indicted over hush money by a Manhattan grand jury

31 March, 2023 | Pragati Singh

Trump World

U.S. President to face a criminal prosecution and jolting his attempt to win the White House next year.

On March 31, prosecutors and defense lawyers announced that Donald Trump had been charged by a Manhattan grand jury, making him the first former U.S. President to face a criminal prosecution and jolting his attempt to win the White House next year. The allegations revolve around payments made during the 2016 presidential campaign to hush claims of extramarital sexual encounters. They are a remarkable development in the wake of years of probes into Mr. Trump’s commercial, political, and personal dealings.

The indictment places a local district attorney’s office at the center of a national presidential contest, ushering in criminal procedures in a community where the ex-President has lived for decades. The allegations, which come at a time of severe political tensions, are likely to strengthen rather than alter the opposing views of those who regard accountability as long overdue and others who, like Mr. Trump, believe the Republican is being targeted for political reasons by a Democratic prosecutor.

Mr. Trump, who has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and slammed the probe, called the indictment “political persecution” and predicted it would hurt Democrats in 2024. In a statement confirming the charges, defence lawyers Susan Necheles and Joseph Tacopina said Mr. Trump “did not commit any crime. We will vigorously fight this political prosecution in court”.

A spokesman for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office confirmed the indictment and stated that prosecutors had contacted Mr. Trump’s defense team to arrange a surrender. According to a source familiar with the situation who was not authorized to discuss closed procedures, the surrender is scheduled to take place next week. On Thursday evening, District Attorney Alvin Bragg left his office without a remark.

The case is around well-documented allegations from 2016 when Mr. Trump’s celebrity background intersected with his political ambitions. Authorities investigated payments made to porn performer Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, whom he worried would go public with allegations of improper sexual encounters with him.

After news indications that criminal charges were likely to be filed within weeks, the timing of the indictment appeared to come as a surprise to Mr. Trump’s campaign personnel. On Thursday, the former President was at his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, where he had filmed an interview with a conservative commentator earlier in the day.

The indictment delivers yet another never-before-seen spectacle for a guy whose administration was defined by one destroyed norm after another. It will necessitate a former President and current presidential candidate fighting for his freedom and political future while also fending off potentially more dangerous legal threats, such as investigations into his and his allies’ attempts to undo the 2020 election as well as the hoarding of hundreds of classified documents.

In fact, until recently, New York was regarded as an unlikely candidate to be the first to prosecute Mr. Trump, who is still the subject of long-running investigations in Atlanta and Washington, both of which could result in charges. Unlike those investigations, the Manhattan lawsuit involves Mr. Trump’s behavior before he became President and is unrelated to the widely publicized efforts to overturn a Presidential election.

The indictment sets the stage for an unprecedented scene — a former President having his fingerprints and mug shot taken, then facing arraignment and possibly a criminal trial — as he seeks to reassert control of the Republican Party and stave off a slew of one-time allies who are seeking or are likely to oppose him for the Presidential nomination. His booking is expected to be carefully staged for security reasons, to avoid crowds inside or outside the courthouse.

Mr. Bragg, the Manhattan District Attorney, is adopting an unusual case that had previously been probed by two sets of prosecutors, both of whom declined to take the politically risky step of seeking Mr. Trump’s indictment.

Mr. Trump, who is attempting to reclaim leadership of the Republican Party, complained about the investigation on social media and pushed followers to protest on his behalf in the weeks leading up to the indictment, triggering heightened security around the Manhattan criminal courthouse.

The hush-money case seemed doomed until it was revealed in early March that Mr. Bragg had invited Mr. Trump to testify before a grand jury, indicating that prosecutors were close to charging him.

Mr. Trump’s counsel declined the invitation, but a lawyer close to the former President testified briefly in an attempt to undermine Mr. Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen’s credibility.

Mr. Cohen was then compensated by Mr. Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, which reportedly rewarded the lawyer with bonuses and extra payments logged as legal expenditures internally. Mr. Cohen claimed that the corporation paid him $4,20,000 over a period of several months.

Earlier that year, Mr. Cohen arranged for the publisher of the supermarket tabloid the National Enquirer to pay Playboy model Karen McDougal $1,50,000 to suppress her story of a Mr. Trump affair, a journalistically problematic tactic known as “catch-and-kill.”

The payments to the ladies were meant to buy secrecy, but they almost immediately backfired when information about the arrangements was revealed to the news media.

In 2018, federal prosecutors in New York charged Mr. Cohen with violating federal campaign finance rules, claiming that the payments amounted to unlawful assistance to Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign. Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to the charges as well as unrelated tax evasion allegations and was sentenced to federal prison.

Mr. Trump was named in court files as having knowledge of the agreements, but US prosecutors declined to pursue him at the time. The Justice Department has long held that prosecuting a sitting President in federal court is likely illegal.

Cyrus Vance Jr., Mr. Bragg’s predecessor as District Attorney, then took up the inquiry in 2019. While the investigation initially focused on the hush money payments, Mr. Vance’s prosecutors expanded their investigation to include a study of Mr. Trump’s commercial transactions and tax methods.

Mr. Vance eventually charged the Trump Organization and its chief financial officer with tax evasion in connection with fringe benefits granted to some of the company’s top executives.

The hush money case became known as the “zombie case” within the D.A.’s office, with prosecutors returning to it on a regular basis but never filing charges.

Mr. Bragg had a different opinion. Following the Trump Organization’s conviction on tax fraud charges in December, he brought new eyes to the well-worn case, appointing seasoned white-collar prosecutor Matthew Colangelo to head the investigation and convening a new grand jury.

Mr. Cohen became a major witness, meeting with prosecutors nearly twice a day, handing over emails, recordings, and other evidence, and testifying in front of the grand jury.

Mr. Trump has often referred to the Manhattan probe as “the greatest witch hunt in history.” He has also attacked Mr. Bragg, claiming that the prosecutor, who is Black, is racist against white people.

The criminal accusations in New York are the latest salvo in a deep divide between Mr. Trump and his hometown — a reckoning for a once-beloved son who grew rich and famous by erecting buildings, rubbing shoulders with celebrities, and gracing the pages of the city’s gossip newspaper.

Mr. Trump, who famously said in 2016 that he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and “wouldn’t lose voters,” now faces a threat to his liberty or, at the very least, his reputation in a borough where more than 75% of voters — many of them potential jurors — voted against him.