Thursday, February 22, 2024

Donald Trump indicted; 1st ex-president charged with a crime

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A Manhattan grand jury has voted to indict Donald Trump on charges involving payments made during the 2016 presidential campaign to silence claims of an extramarital sexual encounter, his lawyers said Thursday, producing the first criminal case against a former U.S. president and a jolt to Trump’s bid to retake the White House.

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, defense lawyers Susan Necheles and Joseph Tacopina said Trump “did not commit any crime. We will vigorously fight this political prosecution in court.”

Related: Read Donald Trump’s full statement after his New York indictment 

The indictment is an extraordinary development after years of investigations into his business, political and personal dealings. It is likely to galvanize critics who say Trump lied and cheated his way to the top and embolden supporters who feel the Republican is being unfairly targeted by a Democratic prosecutor.

A spokesman for Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, confirmed the indictment and said prosecutors had reached out to Trump’s defense team to arrange a surrender. A person familiar with the matter, who was not authorized to discuss sealed proceedings, said the surrender was expected to happen next week. Bragg left his office Thursday evening without commenting.

In bringing the charges, Bragg 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 Trump’s indictment. The district attorney’s investigation centered on 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.

Related: This is what will happen when Trump is arrested in the coming days

The timing of the indictment appeared to come as a surprise to Trump campaign officials following news reports that criminal charges were 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 into as the hoarding of hundreds of classified documents.

In the weeks leading up to the indictment, Trump railed about the investigation on social media and urged supporters to protest on his behalf, prompting tighter security around the Manhattan criminal courthouse.

Related: Donald Trump’s legal worries extend far beyond charges in New York  

Trump faces other potential legal perils 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 district attorney in Atlanta has for two years been investigating efforts by Trump and his allies to meddle in Georgia’s 2020 vote count. And a U.S. Justice Department special counsel is investigating Trump’s storage of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida and his efforts to reverse his election loss.

The fate of the hush-money investigation seemed uncertain until word got out in early March that Bragg had invited Trump to testify before a grand jury, a signal that prosecutors were close to bringing charges.

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 Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen.

Late in the 2016 presidential campaign, Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 to keep her silent about what she says was a sexual encounter with Trump a decade earlier after they met at a celebrity golf tournament.

Cohen was then reimbursed by Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, which also rewarded the lawyer with bonuses and extra payments logged internally as legal expenses. Over several months, Cohen said, the company paid him $420,000.

Related: Donald Trump’s potential indictment caps decades of legal scrutiny

Earlier in 2016, Cohen had also arranged for the publisher of the supermarket tabloid the National Enquirer to pay Playboy model Karen McDougal $150,000 to squelch her story of a 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 Cohen in 2018 with violating federal campaign finance laws, arguing that the payments amounted to impermissible help to Trump’s presidential campaign. Cohen pleaded guilty to those charges and unrelated tax evasion counts and served time in federal prison.

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.

Related: Key events that led to the grand jury vote to indict Donald Trump

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, Vance’s prosecutors moved on to other matters, including an examination of Trump’s business dealings and tax strategies.

Vance ultimately charged the Trump Organization and its chief financial officer with tax fraud related to fringe benefits paid to some of the company’s top executives.

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