Alvin Bragg, the progressive prosecutor who could take down Donald Trump

Alvin Bragg, Manhattan district attorney, stands at a microphone during an interview.
Alvin Bragg, Manhattan district attorney, in New York in December 2022. (Christopher Goodney/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
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The indictment handed down by a grand jury on Thursday against former President Donald Trump puts Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg at the center of one of the most extraordinary legal cases in American history.

A native of Harlem, Bragg was elected in 2021 promising to pursue progressive criminal justice reform. He also promised to hold the former president — a Manhattan resident until 2021 — and his company to account for a series of finance-related misdeeds.

Whether the 49-year-old Harvard-trained attorney can convince a jury that Trump broke New York law in making the payment will determine his legacy. The following profile ran on Yahoo News on March 20, 10 days before the indictment:

“The Anointed One”: That was how the Harvard Crimson titled its 1995 profile of Alvin L. Bragg Jr., then a graduating senior at the college. Harvard was full of ambitious young people, but Bragg seemed destined for something exceptional, a product of Harlem who had gone to one of the most prestigious private schools in Manhattan and had emerged as a campus leader in Cambridge, Mass.

As a freshman, Bragg organized and moderated a dialogue between Black and Jewish students to ease tensions over a talk by Leonard Jeffries, the notoriously antisemitic and homophobic City College of New York professor who had been hosted by the Harvard Black Students Association. The following year, he tried to resolve the controversy engendered by professor Harvey Mansfield, an outspoken conservative who charged that grade inflation was the product of a diversifying student body.

Already, there was talk of Bragg entering politics. “I would push him toward elective politics because he's the perfect example of a crossover politician who can draw votes from both white and Black voters,” Harvard’s dean of students told the Crimson.

Bragg would run for office many years later, after working for state and federal prosecutors, becoming Manhattan’s first Black district attorney after easily winning election in 2021. An unabashed progressive, he championed criminal justice reforms that grew in popularity after the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020.

Bragg, then a candidate, speaks to the press after voting in the election for Manhattan district attorney.
Then a candidate for Manhattan DA, Bragg speaks to the press after casting his ballot on Nov. 2, 2021. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

But the 49-year-old is in the news today because he could be on the cusp of bringing the first-ever criminal charges against a former U.S. president. The charges stem from an assertion by Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen, who admitted in court that adult film actress Stormy Daniels was paid $130,000 in 2016 to keep quiet about an affair with the reality television star, who was then days away from what would be his successful election as president. Although the inquiry into the payment seemed to have stalled, it was recently revived; Daniels met with prosecutors in New York last week.

To make his case, Bragg is expected to use a New York state statute related to fraudulent bookkeeping, a risky strategy that could backfire if jurors become mired in legal complexities. Then there’s the fact that conservatives are claiming Bragg is motivated by politics, as Trump is mounting a new White House run.

“It’s impossible to overstate Mr. Bragg’s bad judgment here,” the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board decreed, calling the district attorney a “provincial progressive from New York City” who did not understand the media and political firestorm he was about to unleash.

Trump says he expects to be arrested Tuesday and has called for protests if that turns out to be the case.

Bragg, for his part, says he will pursue charges if they are warranted, without regard for political ramifications. “We do not tolerate attempts to intimidate our office or threaten the rule of law in New York,” he said over the weekend.

Former President Donald Trump, wearing a Make America Great Again hat, speaks into a microphone at a rally.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in March 2022 in Commerce, Ga. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

A clash between Trump and Bragg was all but inevitable, given that Bragg pledged to focus on the former president’s alleged wrongdoings when he took office in late 2021. Not only that, but the two men represent starkly different visions of the American dream, and the American future — as well as of who the law should and should not prosecute.

Much like Trump, Bragg is a native New Yorker, but the two could not have come from more different worlds. While the future president grew up wealthy in suburban Queens, Bragg was raised on Strivers Row, a legendary block of well-maintained row houses in Central Harlem where members of the city’s Black elite had long resided amid surrounding crime and poverty. Even during the desperate 1980s, when neglect swept over the city and crack cocaine ravaged Black neighborhoods, Strivers Row remained a reserve of genteel Black aspiration.

Bragg’s middle-class parents sent him to Trinity School, one of the city’s most prestigious private schools. With its rigorous academic standards and historic ties to the nation’s best colleges, the question at Trinity is not whether any students will get into an Ivy League school each year, but how many will do so.

Still, Bragg was a young Black man in a city beset by violence. The New York Police Department sometimes took flagrant liberties, expecting little consequence from a terrified public.

“Before I was 21 years old, I had a gun pointed at me six times: three by police officers and three by people who were not police officers. I had a knife to my neck, a semi-automatic gun to my head and a homicide victim on my doorstep,” Bragg would later write of his upbringing.

An NYPD officer blocks traffic during a march.
An NYPD officer blocks traffic as construction workers march to observe Workers Memorial Day on April 28, 2022, in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Bragg attended Abyssinian Baptist Church, one of Harlem’s most storied houses of worship. He continues to do so today, also teaching there. “That hour with the Sunday school is one of the best hours of the week,” he said in early 2022, shortly after taking office.

After Trinity, Bragg went to Harvard College and then to Harvard Law School. There he served as the editor of the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, which bills itself as “the nation’s leading progressive law journal.” He came home for a prestigious clerkship with a liberal judge in the Southern District of New York, which includes Manhattan and tends to prosecute some of the nation’s most high-profile criminal cases.

For all of Bragg’s life, Manhattan’s district attorney had been Robert Morgenthau, a towering figure who decided to leave the storied office at 1 Hogan Place in 2009 after 34 years of unimaginable influence on city life.

His successor was Cyrus R. Vance Jr. Like Morgenthau a white son of wealth and power, Vance was criticized for lacking courage, especially when it came time to prosecute potentially influential figures. At the same time, he was at odds with a burgeoning criminal justice reform movement that sought corrections for racial injustices.

Then-Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance sits at a microphone during a Senate hearing.
Then-Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2019. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Bragg had spent the late 1990s and the first decade of the new century working in a variety of legal roles for both the state and city of New York. In 2009, he earned a position as a federal prosecutor with the Southern District, where he had served as a clerk several years before.

Then, in 2015, then state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman appointed Bragg to “prosecute cases where unarmed civilians die during interactions with law enforcement.” Two years later, Schneiderman named Bragg the state’s chief deputy attorney general.

The following year, Schneiderman was forced to resign after a spate of sexual assault and substance abuse allegations. Bragg left for New York Law School, where he was appointed co-director of a racial justice initiative.

Rumors were mounting by then that Vance would not seek reelection, especially as outrage over his 2015 decision not to prosecute film producer Harvey Weinstein on a variety of sexual assault charges only seemed to deepen with the advent of the #MeToo movement.

Bragg announced that he would run for Manhattan district attorney in 2019, two years before the primary. “I’m running because far too often, we have two standards of justice — one for the rich and powerful and connected and another for everyone else,” he told the Amsterdam News, a historically Black newspaper.

Protesters marching in the streets. Some hold up signs reading: Black lives matter.
Activists demanding police accountability march in 2019 to commemorate the five-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer. (Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The following summer’s racial justice protests seemed to bolster Bragg’s argument that prosecutors could — and must — embrace progressive priorities like decarceration and police accountability. Led by Larry Krasner of Philadelphia, the progressive prosecution movement was spreading to San Francisco, Los Angeles and elsewhere, becoming a national phenomenon.

Bragg stood to benefit from the trend, even after the protests subsided. If his ideas were once radical, they were now firmly in the liberal mainstream.

“I learned that you must keep pushing, despite the strong political and social headwinds. You will be criticized by someone — maybe even everyone — no matter what you do,” he wrote in a September 2020 op-ed for USA Today. “Relationships with law enforcement will be strained. Commentators will second guess your every move. I always told my team to feel liberated by this.”

The establishment’s favored candidate was Tali Farhadian Weinstein, a Yale-educated attorney who reflected wealthier Manhattanites’ unease about soft-on-crime approaches. But her personal wealth and ties to high finance made Weinstein unpalatable to a motivated base.

In June 2021, Bragg prevailed in the Democratic primary, all but ensuring victory in November’s general election. His ascension seemed to terrify conservatives, and some moderates, as a trend of increased violent crime continued.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams speaks at the campaign launch event for “We Love NYC.”
New York City Mayor Eric Adams in Times Square on Monday in New York City. (Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

A conflict between the city’s new tough-on-crime Mayor Eric Adams and Bragg seemed almost certain, but the new district attorney promised not to stray from his ideals. “I will govern tirelessly from the perspective of the communities most impacted by the justice system,” he said as he took the oath of office on Jan. 1, 2022.

But his tenure began with a series of challenges. In a guidance to his staff, Bragg said he would decline to seek prison sentences for some offenses, leading to widespread criticism.

His timing, however, was inauspicious, especially as Adams captured national attention with his pro-policing message. A month after Bragg issued the controversial guidance, the guidance was withdrawn.

Bragg also engendered controversy by declining to pursue a case against the Trump Organization related to the former president’s record of offering wildly divergent valuations of his property portfolio when asking private lenders for money or pushing the government to lower his property tax burden.

Two frustrated prosecutors resigned in protest of Bragg’s decision. One of them, Mark Pomerantz, recently published a book heavily critical of Bragg, who he depicted as overwhelmed and indecisive (the investigation in question was unrelated to the Stormy Daniels case).

In late 2022, Bragg won a 17-count fraud and conspiracy case against the Trump Organization for paying its top account through nominal business expenses to avoid tax liability — though Trump himself was outside the scope of the charges.

Then-San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin speaks to supporters.
Then-San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin at an election-night event on June 7, 2022. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Bragg also appeared to at least partly tailor his messaging to allay public anxiety about crime; failing to make a similar shift had led Chesa Boudin, the former San Francisco district attorney, to lose a recall vote last June.

As he began his second year in office, Bragg told the New York Times that he would continue to go after Trump. “I have every faith that other members of the team who are working on other parts of this endeavor using the same approach will lead to a result that is just,” he said.

The potential charges against Trump will be the biggest test of Bragg yet, one the former president’s supporters are determined to make as difficult as possible.

Republicans in charge of the House Judiciary Committee have summoned Bragg to testify, and conservative media has been rife with charges that he is a “woke” prosecutor minted by the progressive billionaire George Soros, a favorite bogeyman of the right who has funded prosecutors like Boudin and Bragg.

However it ends, the Trump case is far from the first controversy of Bragg’s career.

It is unlikely to be the last.