The first-ever criminal charges against a former US president investigated some seedy allegations – namely, hiding payoffs to sex workers – and that’s made it easier for Donald Trump, his allies and rivals alike to criticize the case as politically motivated.
But legal experts say the indictment Thursday likely provides the simplest set of allegations against Trump out of a handful of inquiries into potential wrongdoing. Prosecutors often look for the least complicated charges to bring against defendants and falsifying recordkeeping about hush-money payments could be relatively easy to explain to a jury, experts said.
Other grand juries are exploring whether Trump tried to overthrow the 2020 election in Georgia or in the Capitol attack on Jan. 6, 2021. Another federal inquiry is probing hundreds of classified documents found at Trump’s Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has not detailed the charges in his case. But he appeared to focus on Trump’s payments before the 2016 election to silence two women who said they had sex with him.
Republicans blasted Bragg’s litigious history with Trump and called the case politically motivated.
“I think the unprecedented indictment of a former president of the United States on a campaign finance issue is an outrage,” former Vice President Mike Pence told CNN on Thursday. “It appears to millions of Americans to be nothing more than a political prosecution that is driven by a prosecutor who literally ran for office on a pledge to indict the former president.”
Yet the case is relatively straightforward, experts said. Norm Eisen, a former House counsel during the first Trump impeachment, cited five New York convictions based on fact patterns similar to the anticipated charges against Trump for alleged false bookkeeping being bumped up to a felony because of campaign finance violations.
“You could not have a more serious matter than this,” Eisen said. “These payments may have actually altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”
Here is the latest where the case stands:
New York case one of several pending investigations against Trump
The New York indictment against Trump is one of at least four investigations against the former president, and perhaps the least sweeping implications. But legal experts said it is still important to prosecute.
In Georgia, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is investigating potential charges of election fraud for Trump’s call 2021. The evidence includes a recorded call to state Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger asking him to “find” the votes to overturn the results for President Joe Biden . Trump’s campaign also recruited alternate electors who submitted their names to the National Archives.
Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith has a two-pronged investigation. He is reviewing Trump’s role in the Capitol attack, which unfolded on national television on Jan. 6. Smith is also reviewing the classified documents, pictures of which have been splashed across newspaper pages nationwide.
While potential New York charges are relatively mundane, Barbara McQuade, a former US attorney and now a law professor at the University of Michigan, said the evidence for falsifying business records would be fairly straightforward based on documents and is a common charge in New York.
“It certainly does not raise the level of overturning an election, but this case is comparable to other cases that get filed on a regular basis in New York against defendants for falsifying business records,” McQuade said. “Trump should not get a pass on this case in New York just because he also faces potential charges in Georgia and in federal court.”
Joyce Vance, a former US attorney in Alabama, called it “a strange world” where people talk about one set of possible criminal acts of a president being more or less important than another.
“Some people think this case is not important,” Vance said. “I strongly disagree.”
Trump expected to surrender Tuesday
Tacopina said Trump was expected in New York by Tuesday for arraignment.
“We’re working out those logistics right now,” Tacopina told NBC’s “Today” show.
Trump was initially “shocked” when notified of the grand jury’s action late Thursday but “put a notch on his belt” and vowed to challenge the criminal case, Tacopina said.
“President Trump will not take a plea deal in this case,” Tacopina said. “There’s no crime.”
Vance said the announcement of the indictment before Trump’s anticipated arraignment on Tuesday created a four-day vacuum when Trump will be telling his side of the story without the actual charges being made public.
“We will hear him for the next few days tell his side of the story: the judge is corrupt. The prosecutors are evil,” Vance said. “We should not be persuaded by any of that.”
Trump case sparks political charges from Haley, DeSantis, Hutchinson
Despite the apparent simplicity of the New York case, the prosecutor’s background and the nature of the charges set off a political firestorm.
Justice Department prosecutors decided not to charge Trump after convicting his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen in part based on the hush money payment. Bragg’s predecessor as district attorney declined to press charges. And two of Bragg’s prosecutors quit in early 2022 when they said he voiced skepticism about the investigation.
Republicans – even Trump’s rivals in the 2024 presidential campaign – called the indictment an “outrage” and “politically motivated.”
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley told Fox News Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg was trying to take “revenge.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is considering a run, said the “weaponization of the legal system” is “un-American.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, another possible candidate, said Trump should have the “presumption of innocence.” He said Trump shouldn’t be the next president, but that the voters should decide.
But Andrew Weissmann, former FBI general counsel and counsel to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump, said lawmakers attacking the case as a “witch hunt” or “weaponization” of the government ring hollow.
“It’s an epithet, not an argument,” Weissmann said.
House GOP chairmen clash with Bragg over Trump case
Three Republican House chairmen – Representatives Jim Jordan of Ohio, on the Judiciary Committee, James Comer of Kentucky on the Oversight and Accountability Committee and Bryan Steil of Wisconsin on the Administration Committee – asked Bragg to answer questions about his inquiry, which they said appeared politically motivated.
Bragg’s general counsel, Leslie Dubeck, rejected the request by saying the lawmakers had no legitimate basis to ask about a pending criminal matter.
The chairmen wrote again saying they were justified in asking how a local prosecutor could alter a president’s policies by threatening criminal charges. But Bragg’s office told the chairman their allegations were “baseless and inflammatory.” Bragg’s office said Trump could defend himself in court.
“Like any other defendant, Mr. Trump is entitled to challenge these charges in court and avail himself of all processes and protections that New York State’s robust criminal procedure affords,” Dubeck wrote Friday in reply to the chairmen.
Trump is the first former president charged, but other countries routinely prosecute leaders
Trump became the first former US leader to be charged criminally. Prosecutors said jurors and the American public will have to judge whether Trump was charged unfairly or singled out for crimes for which others have not been punished.
But Weissmann said prosecution of a former leader isn’t new after other countries such as Argentina, France and Israel have done it.
“There are all sorts of examples from around the world of legitimate, righteous cases that were brought,” Weissmann said. “This is not novel when you look at the global context in which we all live. By the same token we all know about show trials.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump charges hailed as ‘serious’ or ‘outrage’ while waiting for details