Donald Trump has been indicted by a Manhattan grand jury, prosecutors and defence lawyers said on March 31, making him the first former U.S. President to face a criminal charge and jolting his bid to retake the White House next year.
The charges centre on payments made during the 2016 presidential campaign to silence claims of an extramarital sexual encounter. They mark an extraordinary development after years of investigations into Mr. Trump’s business, political and personal dealings.
The indictment injects a local district attorney’s office into the heart of a national presidential race and ushers in criminal proceedings in a city that the ex-President for decades called home. Arriving at a time of deep political divisions, the charges are likely to reinforce rather than reshape duelling perspectives of those who see accountability as long overdue and those who, like Mr. Trump, feel the Republican is being targeted for political purposes by a Democratic prosecutor.
Mr. Trump, who has denied any wrongdoing and has repeatedly assailed the investigation, called the indictment “political persecution” and predicted it would damage 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 said prosecutors had reached out to Mr. Trump’s defence team to arrange a surrender. A person familiar with the matter, who was not authorised to discuss sealed proceedings, said the surrender was expected to happen next week. District Attorney Alvin Bragg left his office on Thursday evening without commenting.
The case centres on well-chronicled allegations from a period in 2016 when Mr. Trump’s celebrity past collided with his political ambitions. Prosecutors scrutinised money paid to porn actor Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, whom he feared would go public with claims that they had extramarital sexual encounters with him.
The timing of the indictment appeared to come as a surprise to Mr. Trump campaign officials following news reports that criminal charges was likely weeks away. The former President was at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida estate, on Thursday and had filmed an interview with a conservative commentator earlier in the day.
For a man whose presidency was defined by one obliterated norm after another, the indictment presents yet another never-before-seen spectacle. It will require a former President, and current hopeful, to simultaneously fight for his freedom and his political future while also fending off potentially more perilous legal threats, including investigations into attempts by him and his allies to undo the 2020 election as well as into the hoarding of hundreds of classified documents.
In fact, New York until recently had been seen as an unlikely contender to be the first place to prosecute Mr. Trump, who continues to face long-running investigations in Atlanta and Washington that could also result in charges. Unlike those inquiries, the Manhattan case concerns conduct by Mr. Trump that occurred before he became President and is unrelated to much-publicised efforts to overturn a Presidential election.
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, the indictment sets the stage for an unprecedented scene — a former President having his fingerprints and mug shot taken, and then facing arraignment and possibly a criminal trial. For security reasons, his booking is expected to be carefully choreographed to avoid crowds inside or outside the courthouse.
In bringing the charges, Mr. Bragg, the Manhattan District Attorney, is embracing an unusual case that had been investigated by two previous sets of prosecutors, both of which declined to take the politically explosive step of seeking Mr. Trump’s indictment.
In the weeks leading up to the indictment, Mr. Trump, who is seeking to reassert control of the Republican Party, railed about the investigation on social media and urged supporters to protest on his behalf, prompting tighter security around the Manhattan criminal courthouse.
The fate of the hush-money investigation seemed uncertain until word got out in early March that Mr. Bragg had invited Mr. Trump to testify before a grand jury, a signal that prosecutors were close to bringing charges.
Mr. Trump’s attorneys declined the invitation, but a lawyer closely allied with the former President briefly testified in an effort to undercut the credibility of Mr. Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen.
Late in the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. Cohen paid Ms. Daniels $130,000 to keep her silent about what she says was a sexual encounter with Mr. Trump a decade earlier after they met at a celebrity golf tournament.
Mr. Cohen was then reimbursed by Mr. Trump’s company, the Trump Organisation, which also rewarded the lawyer with bonuses and extra payments logged internally as legal expenses. Over several months, Mr. Cohen said, the company paid him $4,20,000.
Earlier in 2016, Mr. Cohen had also arranged for the publisher of the supermarket tabloid the National Enquirer to pay Playboy model Karen McDougal $1,50,000 to squelch her story of a Mr. Trump affair in a journalistically dubious practice known as “catch-and-kill”.
The payments to the women were intended to buy secrecy, but they backfired almost immediately as details of the arrangements leaked to the news media.
Federal prosecutors in New York ultimately charged Mr. Cohen in 2018 with violating federal campaign finance laws, arguing that the payments amounted to impermissible help to Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign. Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to those charges and unrelated tax evasion counts and served time in federal prison.
Mr. Trump was implicated in court filings as having knowledge of the arrangements, but U.S. prosecutors at the time balked at bringing charges against him. The Justice Department has a longtime policy that it is likely unconstitutional to prosecute a sitting President in federal court.
Mr. Bragg’s predecessor as District Attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., then took up the investigation in 2019. While that probe initially focused on the hush money payments, Mr. Vance’s prosecutors moved on to other matters, including an examination of Mr. Trump’s business dealings and tax strategies.
Mr. Vance ultimately charged the Trump Organisation and its chief financial officer with tax fraud related to fringe benefits paid to some of the company’s top executives.
The hush money matter became known around the D.A.’s office as the “zombie case,” with prosecutors revisiting it periodically but never opting to bring charges.
Mr. Bragg saw it differently. After the Trump Organisation was convicted on the tax fraud charges in December, he brought fresh eyes to the well-worn case, hiring longtime white-collar prosecutor Matthew Colangelo to oversee the probe and convening a new grand jury.
Mr. Cohen became a key witness, meeting with prosecutors nearly two-dozen times, turning over emails, recordings and other evidence and testifying before the grand jury.
Mr. Trump has long decried the Manhattan investigation as “the greatest witch hunt in history.” He has also lashed out at Mr. Bragg, calling the prosecutor, who is Black, racist against white people.
The criminal charges in New York are the latest salvo in a profound schism between Mr. Trump and his hometown — a reckoning for a one-time favourite son who grew rich and famous building skyscrapers, hobnobbing with celebrities and gracing the pages of the city’s gossip press.
Mr. Trump, who famously riffed 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 least his reputation in a borough where more than 75% of voters — many of them potential jurors — went against him in the last election.