Why Did the Stormy Daniels Case Lead to Trump’s First Indictment?
Former President Donald Trump looks on during a rally at the Waco Regional Airport in Waco, Texas, on March 25, 2023. Credit - Brandon Bell—Getty Images
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has indicted Donald Trump over an alleged hush money payment during his 2016 presidential campaign. It is the first time in American history that a former president has been indicted.
Bragg’s’s case stems from events that occurred before Trump became President. Yet there are several other investigations underway involving Trump’s behavior after he was inaugurated. Prosecutors in Georgia’s Fulton County are looking into Trump’s efforts to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 election win in the state. The former President is also under scrutiny by Justice Department Special Counsel Jack Smith for two separate matters: his handling of classified documents and his actions leading up to the deadly siege of the Capitol Building on Jan. 6, 2021.
Given how many investigators have Trump in their sights, it’s worth asking why the case involving a 2016 payment to adult film actor Stormy Daniels became the first to land a charge.
The Stormy Daniels case is more than 6 years old. Why is this coming up now?
The case has been kicked around the Manhattan District attorney’s office for years. Alvin Bragg, a 49-year-old career prosecutor, took over the office in January 2021 from Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., whose prosecutors had reportedly been following multiple lines of investigation into Trump and his businesses. Vance did not bring any charges against Trump before he left office. Bragg inherited the ongoing investigations, and ended up moving forward with the Daniels case.
At issue in the case is how the Trump Organization and Trump recorded repaying his fixer Michael Cohen $130,000 for a payment to Daniels to keep quiet just before the 2016 election about an alleged affair with Trump.
Cohen says his reimbursements were falsely recorded in internal records as legal fees when actually the money was a campaign expense to keep Daniels quiet. Cohen has also said that Trump knew about the details of the payment and why it was being made. Trump’s legal team denies this and says that Trump would have paid off Daniels regardless of whether he was running for President.
Trump responded to the grand jury’s vote to indict him on Thursday, writing on his social media site TruthSocial that the indictment is “an attack on our country” and an attack on “free and fair elections,” given that he is a candidate for President. Trump’s response did not mention his public and well-documented efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
Trump has faced legal problems for decades. What’s different now?
For nearly 50 years, Trump has tried to sidestep investigations and lawsuits with a simple strategy: delay, deflect, deny and avoid putting anything in writing. The case of the Stormy Daniels payment is challenging that approach.
Trump’s fixer Michael Cohen says that Trump reimbursed him for the hush money payment to Daniels in order to stop her from going public before the election with her account of an alleged affair with Trump. Cohen’s 2018 guilty plea for campaign finance violations in relation to the hush money payment has given prosecutors a clear trail of evidence to follow. The case will test Trump’s decades-long ability to avoid harsh punishments in the court system.
Trump was also largely immune from prosecutions while he was President. Once he left the Oval Office, multiple investigations began to slowly move forward, some of them tied to Trump’s efforts to overturn the election that he had lost.
“The fact that this indictment may involve the least of Trump’s alleged crimes, shouldn’t matter. It has to do with the timing of the work of various grand juries,” says Timothy Naftali, a historian at New York University and former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, recently told TIME. “The bigger issue is whether the former president is above the law and the answer is, ‘no.’”
Trump is trying to use his status as a 2024 presidential candidate to say that Bragg is targeting him for political reasons. Bragg was the one “breaking the law,” for going after a former President and leading presidential candidate, Trump wrote on Truth Social on March 19, adding that Bragg should be “held accountable” for the “crime of interfering in a presidential election.”
Is the Daniels case a slam dunk for the prosecution?
It does not look that way, though the shape of the case will become clearer once the indictment is publically released. In order for the Manhattan district attorney to prosecute the case, a court will want to ensure that the alleged crimes fall within Bragg’s jurisdiction. If Bragg can’t show that, a court could reject the case or demand the prosecutor pursue more narrow charges.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office has considerable experience filing charges for alleging false business records. But to bring a more serious felony charge in this case, Bragg’s office may need to allege that Trump falsified business records with the intent to conceal a second crime. That second crime in this case may end up being an alleged violation of federal election law.
Cohen pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance charges in 2018 in relation to the hush money payment. It’s an open question as to whether New York state prosecutors have jurisdiction to bring a case that relates to federal election law. In the federal case, Cohen said the payments and coverup were done with an intention to influence the election. Because Cohen pleaded guilty in that case, his claims were never challenged in court, and there are few, if any, precedents.
Bragg’s predecessor Vance reportedly had concerns that relying on federal election law for the second crime could weaken the case, according to The New York Times.
That may be the newly charted territory Bragg is examining, and why charges in that case have taken so long to surface.
What should I know about Alvin Bragg?
Bragg is the first Black man to be elected as Manhattan district attorney in the 220-year history of the office. Previously, he was a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York and the deputy chief in the state attorney general’s office. While in the state attorney general’s office, Bragg was part of lawsuits against the Donald J. Trump Foundation that ended in a $2 million settlement paid by Trump.
Read more: For Both Donald Trump and Alvin Bragg, the Central Park Jogger Case Was a Turning Point
Bragg grew up in Harlem in upper Manhattan before earning his undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard. Bragg beat out seven candidates in the Democratic primary for Manhattan District Attorney in 2021, and then easily won in the general election. He campaigned on delivering criminal justice reform policies. When he got to office, he was criticized for a public memo he wrote about his plan to reduce prosecutions. Critics of Bragg’s plan included New York Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell.
What about the other Trump cases Bragg’s office was pursuing?
Bragg has moved forward on a separate Trump-related case, but has not directly charged Trump with a crime in that proceeding. In December 2022, Bragg’s office successfully convicted the Trump Organization of criminal tax fraud and, in January, a court sentenced Allen Weisselberg, the former chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, to five months in prison.
Several weeks into Bragg’s term as district attorney, two prosecutors investigating cases related to Trump resigned over concerns that Bragg was hesitating to press forward with charges against Trump.
Can being a former President and a current presidential candidate protect Trump?
Nope. The Justice Department has a long-standing practice of not charging a sitting President with a crime. That practice was challenged during the Trump administration when Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded there was evidence that Trump had obstructed his investigation but didn’t clearly recommend an indictment.
But a former President, even one who is again a presidential candidate, can face criminal charges just like any other citizen.“There is a feeling that somehow former presidents, because of the high office they used to occupy, should somehow be treated differently,” says the historian Naftali. “The framers never intended that former presidents should have immunity from criminal prosecution; there is no such immunity.”