We knew it was coming, but it is quite something: A former US president indicted for a crime for the first time in history.
A Manhattan grand jury has voted to charge Donald Trump on what sources say are more than 30 counts related to business fraud in a case arising from hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels, possibly to avoid a scandal ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
It’s what comes next that counts.
Will the indictment help or hinder Trump’s political prospects? And does the indictment even make sense? Most legal pundits, on both sides of the political divide, regard the hush-payments saga as the weakest of the six criminal cases against him.
Financial filing irregularities do not usually count as federal offences.
The charges against Trump will be kept under seal until the defendant’s first appearance in court. So the exact nature of the charges is not yet known.
But even the prosecutor leading the case, Bragg, has admitted that “novel” legal arguments may be needed to prosecute the case.
Bragg can argue, however, that Trump’s lawyer-turned whistle-blower Michael Cohen, who is said to have facilitated the payment to Daniels on Trump’s behalf, has done jail time – for crimes that include a campaign finance violation related to $130,000 payment to her shortly before Election Day 2016. So why not Trump himself?
“I believe that Donald right now is petrified,” Cohen told MSNBC, just minutes after media outlets began reporting the indictment. “This is one of his biggest fears, that he would be called out for who and what he is.”
Trump might get a bounce from the hush-payments indictment – especially if the case falls apart. But you could argue, he doesn’t need to “fire up” his base. They’d probably vote for him, no matter what.
The fear – even the threat – of a violent response from his hardcore supporters is a concern. NYPD officers were told Thursday evening to be in uniform and ready for deployment on Friday.
Trump might be somewhat unbalanced – check out his recent speech at the CPAC conference in Maryland, if you harbour any doubts about that – but he isn’t entirely stupid. He’ll probably be aware of how any calls to arms following this first indictment against him might influence his prospects in the other criminal cases. He might still cling to the defence that he had no idea that his comments ahead of the 6 January 2020 insurrection would prompt a violent insurrection as he awaits likely charges relating to that riot at the Capitol. Should new Trump rhetoric encourage violence in New York, Georgia, then he won’t have a leg to stand on.
And we shouldn’t forget that the coming cases – particularly the charge of electoral interference in Georgia – look very serious.
Contrast the uncertainty over the hush payment case with the strength of the expected indictment against Trump in Georgia, where the ex-president was recorded in what seemed like an attempt to nobble the 2020 election result. Trump asked the Georgia secretary of state to “find” enough votes to hand him an electoral college win there. A “special grand jury” hearing the evidence has already finished its work and district attorney, Fani Willis, said in January that a decision on whether to press charges was “imminent”.
In addition to these two cases, Trump faces an investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ) into the hundreds of classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago and another probe by the DOJ into his suspected attempts to undermine the result of the 2020 election, which culminated in the riot at the Capitol.
He also faces a set of investigations (some criminal, some civil) into his various corporate enterprises. The attorney general of New York state, Letitia James, and the Manhattan DA, Bragg, heading the Stormy Daniels case, have been leading these probes. Their efforts have already resulted in the closure of the foundation whose funds Trump admitted misusing and the criminal conviction of both the Trump Organisation and its chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg for tax fraud. The investigations are still ongoing.
And Trump faces the prospect of a less-publicised sixth criminal case, involving both the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission. It concerns Trump’s activities since he left office and after he was expelled from Twitter, which related to the creation and funding of his Truth Social platform.
Until now US presidents hit by scandal have declared themselves immune from prosecution while in office and even afterwards.
However, law scholars in the US point to Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution that says a president impeached by the House and removed from office by the Senate “shall nevertheless be liable and subject to indictment, trial, judgment and punishment, according to law”. This suggests that after leaving office – or in Trump’s case, being dragged kicking and screaming from it – a US president may be criminally liable for his actions.
Half a century after federal officials first accused Trump and his father of breaking laws that barred racial discrimination in apartment rentals, the former president has finally been indicted. Like that other shady, orange property tycoon, Silvio Berlusconi, there is a growing sense of the law finally catching up with Donald Trump. Hence, his desperation to be re-elected in the hope for affording himself extra legal protection.
But this is uncharted territory. Just as his presidency brought turmoil and acrimony, the build up to his second attempt at the Oval Office, looks set for a slot in the history books – again for all the wrong reasons.
AS CNN noted this morning: “It means that after a tumultuous four-year term, a historic two impeachments, an election falsely tainted by Trump’s lies about fraud and a mob attack by his supporters on Congress, a new national nightmare may be ahead.”
On the bright side, we shouldn’t forget that, last time around, non-aligned voters and even some Republicans chose not to vote for Trump, because they were tired of the nonsense, the strife and the all pervasive presence of Donald Trump’s ego in four, long, chaos-filled years.
Trump’s legal travails are only just beginning, and regardless of the outcome of the hush-payments case in New York, the public will have plenty of time to get fed up with Trump again – even before the 2024 presidential race starts.