New York grand jury votes to indict Donald Trump

He will be the first U.S. president to face criminal charges, which remain unknown but are related to hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 campaign that carried the Republican to the White House

Former U.S. President Donald Trump takes the stage in a campaign rally with supporters, in Davenport, Iowa, U.S. March 13, 2023.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump takes the stage in a campaign rally with supporters, in Davenport, Iowa, U.S. March 13, 2023.JONATHAN ERNST (REUTERS)
María Antonia Sánchez-Vallejo

A Manhattan grand jury voted Thursday to indict former president Donald Trump, in a case stemming from $130,000 in hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels in exchange for her silence over an alleged affair that, if known, would have destroyed his presidential aspirations, since the alleged bribe aborted the scandal in the final stretch of the 2016 campaign. The Republican, who became the first former U.S. president to face criminal prosecution, has repeatedly denied the relationship, and his lawyers have accused Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, of extortion. They have also denounced the moves of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who is prosecuting the case, as politically motivated against the Republican.

The actual indictment, with the seal of U.S. Attorney Bragg’s office, will likely be announced in the coming days. It is assumed that, behind the scenes, the prosecution is negotiating Trump’s voluntary surrender. If he accepts, it could produce the unprecedented image of an ex-president, accompanied by Secret Service agents, being photographed and fingerprinted in a New York courtroom.

The Manhattan D.A.’s office offered Trump a chance to testify in early March before the grand jury investigating the alleged payment, in a sign that an indictment was imminent. The former president declined the offer, according to prosecutorial sources. The indictment opens up an uncharted scenario in legal terms, since no former occupant of the Oval Office, either sitting or retired, has ever faced criminal charges.

It also creates a practically existential dilemma for an already divided Republican Party, which must decide whether to support or reject a 2024 presidential candidate who has been signaled out by the justice system. The police has contingency plans ready in Washington D.C. and in New York, home of the Trump empire, ahead of possible protests by Trump followers and after the former president called on supporters to “protest, take our nation back” on his app Truth Social.

After Trump turned down the D.A.’s offer to testify before the grand jury, it became evident that an indictment was forthcoming when Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, testified twice behind closed doors, as did Daniels. Cohen, once a trusted Trump aide, was convicted in 2018 after pleading guilty in federal court to violating campaign finance laws by paying Daniels and another woman in the final stretch of the 2016 campaign, among other crimes.

The lawyer paid Daniels through a shell company and was later reimbursed by Trump, whose Trump Organization recorded the payments as business expenses. In early 2016, Cohen also managed to get the editor of The National Enquirer to pay $150,000 to former Playboy model Karen McDougal for her silence about a similar affair. The tabloid pledged not to publish the exclusive. At that time, Trump was already married to Melania Trump, and the former president has denied sleeping with either of those two women.

A year to trial

The agenda now opening up before Trump leads to a crucial date, the 2024 presidential election. Any trial would take more than a year, according to legal experts, so it could coincide with the last stretch of the campaign. But criminal cases in New York take on average more than a year to move from indictment to trial, according to sources in the Manhattan D.A.’s office. This raises the possibility of a trial in the middle of the campaign, or even after the election has been held, although putting an elected or incumbent president on trial for state charges would enter uncharted legal territory. If elected, he would not be able to pardon himself from the kinds of charges brought by Bragg.

In the short term, the indictment would involve Trump going to the district attorney’s office in downtown New York to turn himself in. In high-profile cases such as this one, the defendant’s lawyers and prosecutors usually agree on a date and time to avoid the embarrassment of a house arrest. In an ironic plot twist, Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida and Trump’s main Republican rival, would have to approve the extradition request of the defendant, whose residency is in that state, although legal experts argue that DeSantis’ role would be strictly administrative.

In the end, it was none of the major outstanding issues with the courts that knocked Trump down but a minor one, albeit one with serious implications regarding the transparency of the 2016 campaign. But it is paradoxical that this is the case that has brought Trump the closest to facing a court, considering his other legal challenges: two federal cases, for keeping confidential documents and for his role in instigating the assault on the Capitol in 2021; another case for attempting to subvert the results of the 2020 election in the state of Georgia, and two more parallel cases for tax fraud brought by Manhattan and New York State prosecutors.

In fact, in December, the Trump Organization was found guilty of tax fraud in a criminal case also prosecuted by the Manhattan district attorney’s office. In September, New York State Attorney General Letitia James sued Trump and three of his adult children in a civil suit for what she described as “exceptional” fraud, a case that could result in penalties of at least $250 million.

The explosive dimension that this case has taken on is particularly striking, considering that it was on the verge of a deadlock in February of last year following the resignation of two of the top lawyers in the office run by the newly arrived Bragg. The resignation of the case’s leading investigators was viewed as a prosecutorial retreat and perhaps an eventual end to the case, but nothing could be further from the truth, as evidenced by the indictment in a case that has accelerated in recent weeks with the presentation of evidence before the grand jury.

The legal challenges affecting Trump are so far-reaching that President Joe Biden in November appointed a special counsel, Jack Smith, to oversee all investigations involving the former president. In all cases, starting with Daniels, Trump has denied the accusations. On Saturday he wrote on Truth Social that the Manhattan D.A.’s office is “corrupt and highly politicized.” He has also lashed out against the New York State Attorney General, saying he is the target of a “witch hunt” motivated by the interests of James, a former gubernatorial candidate.

This alleged political motivation that Trump and his lawyers see in Bragg and James was the argument used on Saturday by the highest-ranking U.S. Republican, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, whose relationship with Trump has been full of ups and downs.

“Here we go again — an outrageous abuse of power by a radical DA who lets violent criminals walk as he pursues political vengeance against President Trump,” tweeted McCarthy on Saturday. “I’m directing relevant committees to immediately investigate if federal funds are being used to subvert our democracy by interfering in elections with politically motivated prosecutions.”

McCarthy was alluding to what is probably the biggest challenge of the Manhattan district attorney’s office: the pending reform of the bail and parole system to avoid the revolving doors of police stations and prisons. This is the kind of ammunition that Republicans use with relish to exonerate Trump of any blame and deepens the polarization that the former president left behind as his main legacy.

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