Former President Trump’s legal fate — at least in the short term — was resting in the hands of a New York grand jury on Monday, amid reports that an indictment could be imminent.
The grand jury is hearing evidence assembled by Manhattan District Attorney (D) relating to a $130,000 payment to the adult film actress Stormy Daniels in 2016.
Daniels alleges that she had sex with Trump at a Lake Tahoe, Nev., celebrity golf tournament in 2006. In the final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign, Daniels was paid the six-figure sum, essentially to buy her silence as she threatened to go public.
The deal was brokered by Michael Cohen, then Trump’s lawyer and fixer, now a strong critic of the former president.
No indictment of Trump is guaranteed. But if it does happen, it is likely to focus on charges of falsifying business records, breaching election finance laws, or both.
Here are five big questions if an indictment is issued.
What’s the likely impact on Trump’s presidential campaign?
Trump’s adversaries should not plan on the wheels coming off his campaign anytime soon, even if he is indicted.
Last summer, after the FBI raided his Florida resort of Mar-a-Lago in a separate probe into classified documents, his approval ratings rose in some polls.
The parallel may be inexact, but it is a reminder that Trump’s political demise has been predicted numerous times before.
An indictment could spark a rallying around Trump from conservative voters who are receptive to the former president’s complaints that he is being unfairly targeted.
Still, such a move would, at the very least, complicate Trump’s campaign significantly. GOP critics would argue it is the perfect illustration of how Trump brings just too much chaos in his wake. Democrats would be gleeful at the front-runner for the 2024 GOP nomination conducting his campaign while under criminal charges.
Trump can still legally run if he is indicted — and even if he is subsequently convicted.
How would Trump’s rivals react?
A Trump indictment would be a challenge for Trump’s GOP rivals, as well as himself.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) — the biggest threat to Trump if he enters the presidential race — was excoriated by Trump allies when he responded to initial news of the likely indictment with a lengthy silence.
When DeSantis did eventually comment, he criticized Bragg for dwelling on the Trump matter rather than addressing more serious crimes. But he also added, of Trump, “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair.”
The jab drew a furious response from the former president, who posted on Truth Social that DeSantis would “probably find out about FALSE ACCUSATIONS & FAKE STORIES sometime in the future.”
Setting aside the specifics of the Trump-DeSantis relationship, a Trump indictment would be tricky for any of his rivals to handle. So far, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley is the only declared top-tier candidate other than Trump, but former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are among the others who could enter the race.
Any of those figures would be faced with a basic choice between tying themselves to Trump and thereby diminishing their own distinctiveness, or criticizing Trump and alienating the enormous numbers of GOP voters who are sympathetic toward him.
What are the chances of conviction?
A decision to charge Trump would be monumental. But the robustness of the case is seriously open to question.
For a start, falsifying business records is a misdemeanor rather than a felony, unless it can be linked to another, more grave crime.
The possible attempt to tie Trump to more serious offenses pertaining to election law is also fraught with danger. A broadly similar 2012 case against John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic nominee for vice president and a candidate in the 2008 presidential primary, did not result in conviction. Edwards was acquitted on one count, and the jury deadlocked on five others.
In Edwards’s case, the defense successfully argued that payments to support a woman with whom he had an affair — and with whom he had a child — could not be proven to be an election expenditure, since the money might just as easily have been paid to avoid personal embarrassment even if he was not seeking public office.
How might House Republicans react?
Trump’s allies in the House are already in a verbal war with Bragg.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and House Oversight and Accountability Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) have been in the MAGA vanguard so far.
The duo, joined by House Administration Committee Chairman Bryan Steil (R-Wis.), wrote to Bragg on Saturday, hitting him hard for his refusal to cooperate with a previous request for testimony.
The eight-page letter included the assertion that Bragg had not disputed “the central allegations at issue.”
The Republicans characterized those central allegations as the charge that Bragg was acting “under political pressure from left-wing activists and former prosecutors” to engage in legal games and “indict for the first time in history a former President of the United States.”
If an indictment is actually issued, those verbal clashes will only be a taste of what is to come.
What happens next?
It’s possible the grand jury will decline to indict Trump.
But if it does indict him, the former president will presumably make arrangements to surrender to authorities rather than face the indignity of being seized. A police station would be the most likely location for such a surrender.
Trump would almost certainly be fingerprinted and photographed — an image that would instantly ricochet around the world.
Trump would surely be released in advance of his trial, though his arraignment would be a massive media event in itself.
The contours of a future case also have a stark and ominous side.
The former president has warned of “potential death & destruction” if he is charged and called for his supporters to protest, and authorities in New York are already taking security measures in advance of such a possibility.
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