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Donald Trump indicted in New York over hush money paid to porn star

Trump said in a statement that the indictment amounts to "political persecution" and "election interference at the highest level in history."

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

Bloomberg
By Patricia Hurtado and Greg Farrell

Donald Trump was indicted in New York for directing hush money payments to a porn star during his 2016 campaign, a historic event in American law and politics that is certain to divide an already polarized society and electorate.
A grand jury returned the indictment on Thursday, according to two people with knowledge of the matter, who asked not to be identified because the charges haven’t yet been made public.

Trump, the first former US president to be indicted, must now grapple with the charges even as he campaigns for a second presidential term in next year’s race. The indictment, sought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, comes as Trump faces the Atlanta DA’s investigation of his bid to overturn his 2020 election loss in the state, as well as a federal special counsel’s probe of those efforts and of his handling of government documents.

The indictment landed on the American political and legal landscape like a bombshell, one day after reports that the grand jury had been given three weeks off and was expected to reconvene on April 24 — though with the caveat that Bragg could bring the jurors back at any time in the interim.

New York court officials said high security at the courthouse, which was ramped up since March 21, when Trump predicted he would be arrested, continued Thursday. Susan Hoffinger, the lead prosecutor in the investigation, was seen entering the building where the grand jury hearing the Trump case sits shortly before 2 p.m. Thursday and left at about 4:45 p.m.

“What has been predicted for a long time has finally come to fruition,” said Barbara McQuade, a former US attorney now at the University of Michigan’s law school. “Trump will have to appear in court and put forth a legal defense.”

She added that “tough talk will not save him in court.”

Trump defense lawyer Joe Tacopina said he had just been informed of the charges by Bragg’s office Thursday afternoon. 

“Obviously we’re disappointed, but we will swiftly and aggressively fight these charges and pursue justice in this case,” he said. Tacopina said he expects Trump to be arraigned next week.

Trump said in a statement that the indictment amounts to “political persecution” and “election interference at the highest level in history.” He described the case as the latest effort by Democrats to “destroy the Make America Great Again movement,” comparing the indictment to his earlier impeachments and the “Russia, Russia, Russia” investigation.

“The Democrats have lied, cheated and stolen in their obsession with trying to ‘Get Trump,’ but now they’ve done the unthinkable - indicting a completely innocent person in an act of blatant Election Interference,” he said. “Never before in our nation’s history has this been done.”

Danielle Filson, a spokeswoman for Bragg, didn’t immediately return voicemails and emails seeking comment on the indictment. The White House declined to comment.

Bragg’s office has come under fire in recent weeks, first from Trump himself, who predicted “death and destruction” if he was indicted. The office has also been under pressure from several prominent Republican congressmen, including Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, who demanded that the Manhattan DA respond to requests for documents justifying his investigation of Trump. 

Far from paralyzing the DA’s office, the threats and pressure appear to have galvanized Bragg’s office, according to a former prosecutor from the office who has stayed in touch with Bragg’s people. The former prosecutor, now in private practice, asked not to be named because the conversations were private.

All three probes of Trump are underway during his third campaign for the White House and as his Republican support may be waning. While his base, a steady 30% of the GOP electorate, supports the 76-year-old candidate no matter what, many other Republicans and independent voters are looking for a less dramatic alternative, like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley is also running.

Trump has denied wrongdoing and dismissed all three inquiries as partisan vendettas. And he has gained significant support by claiming he is the victim of a “deep state” persecution. 

Yet neither criminal charges nor a conviction disqualifies him from running or even serving as president.

Stormy Daniels
 
In the case brought by Bragg, a Democrat, Trump and his company are alleged to have falsified records to conceal the payments to Stormy Daniels. His onetime lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 to repress claims that she’d had a sexual relationship with Trump, and was reimbursed by the Trump Organization. Trump has denied the affair and any involvement in the payoff.

The case rests on a theory that has never been tested, legal experts say. Falsifying business records can be a misdemeanor under New York law, but for prosecutors to prove Trump committed a felony, they would have to show he was involved in the falsification to commit or conceal a second crime.

During his administration, federal prosecutors decided against seeking Trump’s indictment over the hush money, citing Justice Department guidance that a sitting president can’t be charged. 

Trump said earlier in March that the DA’s office had invited him to testify before the grand jury Bragg convened in the case — an invitation that signaled prosecutors were serious about bringing charges against him. He declined the offer.

Trump Companies’ Conviction
 
The case is the latest by Bragg’s office tied to Trump. A New York state jury in December found a pair of Trump companies guilty of engaging in a years-long tax fraud scheme and fined them $1.6 million. While Trump wasn’t charged, his longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, pleaded guilty to tax fraud charges and was the prosecution’s star witness at the trial.

The charges against Trump come after Bragg initially decided in February 2022 not to pursue an indictment, spurring the resignation of two senior prosecutors on the case. One of them, Mark Pomerantz, a former federal prosecutor who led the investigation under Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus Vance Jr., sharply criticized Bragg for failing to charge Trump. 

Pomerantz said in his book People vs. Donald Trump that his team thought the payments to Daniels and a former Playboy model could have been part of a larger case including Trump’s falsifying business records in his annual financial statements.

Noah Bookbinder, president of the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the indictment adds to Trump’s record of being the first president to be impeached twice and described him as the “most corrupt president in American history.”

“He has spent his entire political career dodging accountability for his wanton disregard for the law,” Bookbinder said. “It is finally catching up to him. The charges in New York are the first ever brought against him, but they will not be the last.”

In both impeachments, Trump was acquitted in the Senate.

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First Published: Mar 31 2023 | 6:26 AM IST

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