What to Know About Trump's Possible Criminal Charges
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters before his speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center on March 4, 2023 in National Harbor, Maryland. Credit - Anna Moneymaker—Getty Images
Donald Trump may be on the verge of becoming the first former President ever to be criminally indicted.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s office has invited Trump to testify before a grand jury over his 2016 involvement in a hush money scandal with porn star Stormy Daniels, a move that former federal prosecutors and legal experts say is a sign that criminal charges could be coming.
The New York Times first reported the development Thursday, and Trump’s lawyer has since confirmed the invitation. It’s an aggressive step by Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg, who last year declined to press charges against Trump for allegedly misleading lenders and insurers about the value of his properties, leading to resignations inside Bragg’s office.
At the heart of the current inquiry is whether Trump was criminally responsible for the payments made to Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, following allegations from Trump’s former lawyer that he knowingly approved the deal and falsified payment records.
The Daniels case is not Trump’s only area of potential legal liability. It comes amid multiple other criminal and civil probes into alleged conduct, including Trump’s unauthorized removal of classified material from the White House and attempts to overturn the 2020 election.
But the Stormy Daniels case may well result in the first indictment. That would surely throw a wrench into American politics as Trump proceeds with his 2024 presidential campaign, and set in motion a legal spectacle unlike any this country has ever seen.
Here’s what to know.
What is the Stormy Daniels case?
The inquiry began nearly five years ago after Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to illegal campaign contributions. Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison for organizing payments leading up to the 2016 election to Clifford and another woman, Karen McDougal. Both of them, in return, agreed not to publicly disclose their personal relationships with Trump.
Clifford has said she and Trump had a sexual relationship in 2006; the former President has denied the affair. Clifford reached out to National Enquirer in 2016, proposing exclusive rights to her story, but rather than buying it, executives at the Enquirer connected Clifford with Cohen to organize a payout.
Cohen admitted to paying Clifford $130,000 in the final days of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. He was later reimbursed in monthly installments, which the Justice Department noted were disguised as payments for legal services that never existed. The former Trump attorney is expected to testify before the grand jury.
What are the charges Bragg is pursuing?
Bragg has declined to comment on inviting Trump to testify, but according to former prosecutors and legal scholars, the District Attorney could potentially pursue charges for falsifying business records, which would hinge on Trump’s allegedly improper payments to Cohen. Cohen himself has claimed that Trump knew about the falsely labeled payments, making that a possible basis for the charge.
If the prosecution can prove that Trump intended to conceal another crime via falsified records, the DA could potentially charge Trump with a felony; the other alleged crime would likely relate to campaign finance violations, as prosecutors could argue that the payout to Clifford was an improper campaign donation engineered to help his presidential prospects.
Bringing an indictment would be an “aggressive move,” says Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor. “They’re bringing a case that is out of the ordinary. It’s rare for payments of this type to be the subject of criminal charges. There is a risk that not only they will potentially lose at trial, but there’s also a risk on appeal, that the New York courts could decide that this is not properly charged.”
Will Trump testify?
It’s highly unlikely Trump would accept the prosecutor’s invitation to appear before the grand jury. Nor does Bragg likely expect him to testify, according to multiple former federal prosecutors.
But the invitation may be a sign that Bragg’s office is preparing for an indictment. “It is such a signal,” says former U.S. attorney Harry Litman.
New York law mandates that prosecutors offer a potential defendant the opportunity to testify in front of a grand jury that’s been hearing evidence in any case before they’re indicted. Most choose not to testify. The invitation typically implies that prosecutors will soon follow with an indictment, experts say.
What happens if Trump is charged?
He will have his day in court. Trump would be expected to plead not guilty, setting off an arduous legal battle.
Mariotti predicts that Cohen would be a key factual witness, given his central role in the transaction. But he’s also likely to be attacked by Trump’s attorneys. Cohen served prison time on multiple charges, including tax evasion, campaign finance violations, and lying to Congress. “The defense is going to criticize him and point the finger at him,” Mariotti says.
What does this mean for the other investigations into Trump?
It’s not clear this will have a material effect on the other main probes into the former president, such as Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’s investigation into whether Trump criminally disrupted the 2020 election; the Department of Justice probe into his removal of classified documents and alleged obstruction of federal efforts to retrieve them; and special counsel Jack Smith’s inquiry into Trump’s alleged efforts to prevent the peaceful transfer of power in 2020.
Trump will likely use any indictments to gin up grievance among the MAGA faithful over a shared sense of persecution. “It is surely a unique political context,” Litman says, noting, “Trump’s essential promise that he’s going to turn it around into a big ‘I am your warrior, I’m your justice’ campaign issue.”
Mariotti says that hiccups in one case could serve as fuel for Trump to discredit any of the others. “You don’t just have to consider its impact on that one case,” he emphasizes. “You have to consider the impact and all the cases. So it’s like playing 3-D chess.”