What we know about the potential impeachment of Donald Trump

Former President Donald Trump at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, on March 4, 2023. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

The revelation that the Manhattan district attorney’s office indicated to Donald Trump’s lawyers that he could soon face criminal charges marked a major development in an investigation that has grown into the former president since almost five years.

It also raised a number of questions about the contours of the potential case against Trump, who could become the first former US president to be indicted.

Alvin L. Bragg, the district attorney, is focused on Trump’s involvement in the payment of hush money to a porn star who said he had a relationship with him. Michael D. Cohen, Trump’s fixer at the time, made the payment during the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign.

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While the facts are dramatic, the case against Trump will likely depend on a complex interplay of laws. And a conviction is far from assured.

Here’s what we know, and don’t know, about Trump’s longest investigation.

How did this all start?

In October 2016, during the final weeks of the presidential campaign, porn star Stormy Daniels tried to sell her story of an affair with Trump.

At first, Daniels’ representatives contacted the National Enquirer to offer exclusive rights to his story. David Pecker, the tabloid’s publisher and a longtime Trump ally, had agreed to cover potentially damaging stories about him during the 2016 campaign, and at one point even agreed to buy another’s business history woman with Trump and never publish. a practice called “catch and kill”.

But Pecker didn’t buy Daniels’ story. Instead, he and the first editor of the tabloid, Dylan Howard, helped make a separate agreement between Cohen’s lawyer and Daniels.

Cohen paid $130,000, and Trump later reimbursed him from the White House.

In 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to a series of charges, including federal campaign finance crimes involving hush money. The payment, federal prosecutors concluded, was an improper donation to the Trump campaign.

In the days following Cohen’s guilty plea, the district attorney’s office opened its own criminal investigation into the matter. While federal prosecutors were focused on Cohen, the district attorney’s investigation would be focused on Trump.

So what did Trump possibly do wrong?

When he pleaded guilty in federal court, Cohen pointed the finger at his boss. It was Trump, he said, who ordered him to pay Daniels, a thesis that prosecutors later corroborated.

Prosecutors also raised questions about Trump’s monthly reimbursement checks to Cohen. They said in court documents that Trump’s company “falsely counted” the monthly payments as legal fees and that the company’s records cited a network agreement with Cohen. Although Cohen was a lawyer, and became Trump’s personal lawyer after he took office, there was no such retainer agreement and the reimbursement was not related to the legal services that Cohen performed.

Cohen said Trump knew about the fake retainer agreement, an allegation that could be the basis of the case against the former president.

In New York, falsifying business records can be a felony, even if it is a misdemeanor. To elevate the crime to a felony charge, Bragg’s prosecutors must show that Trump’s “intent to defraud” included an intent to commit or conceal a second crime.

In this case, that second crime could be a violation of New York state election law. While hush money is not inherently illegal, prosecutors could argue that the $130,000 payment effectively became an improper donation to the Trump campaign, under the theory that it benefited his candidacy because it silenced Daniels.

Will it be a hard case to prove?

Even if Trump is indicted, convicting him or sending him to prison will be challenging. For one thing, Trump’s lawyers are sure to attack Cohen’s credibility by citing his criminal record.

The case against the former president likely also hinges on an unproven and therefore risky legal theory involving a complex interplay of laws.

Combining the charge of falsifying business records with a violation of state election law would be a new legal theory for any criminal case, let alone one against the former president, that raises the possibility that a judge or an appeals court could throw out or reduce the felony charge. to a crime.

And even if the felony charge remains, it’s a low-level crime. If Trump were ultimately convicted, he would face a maximum sentence of four years, although prison time would not be mandatory.

How do prosecutors convey that the charges are likely?

Prosecutors from the district attorney’s office recently signaled to Trump’s lawyers that he could face criminal charges.

They did so by offering Trump the opportunity to testify next week before a grand jury hearing evidence in the potential case, people with knowledge of the matter said. Such offers almost always indicate an indictment is imminent; It would be unusual for prosecutors to notify a potential defendant without ultimately seeking charges against him.

In New York, potential defendants have the right to answer questions in the grand jury before being indicted, but they rarely testify, and Trump is likely to decline the offer.

Will Trump definitely be impeached?

It is also possible that Trump will not face charges. Trump’s lawyers may meet privately with prosecutors in hopes of fending off the criminal charges.

And although Bragg’s prosecutors have already questioned at least six other people before the grand jury, they haven’t finished presenting their evidence. Cohen, for example, has yet to appear before the panel.

Prosecutors must then present the charges to grand juries, which will vote on an indictment.

Until then, Bragg might decide to pump the brakes. For now, though, it seems unlikely.

What did Trump say in his defense?

Trump referred to the investigation as a “witch hunt” against him that began before he became president, and called Bragg, who is black and a Democrat, a “racist” who is motivated by politics.

In a statement published Thursday night on Trump’s social network, Truth Social, he rejected these statements, and denied that he had ever had a relationship with Daniels. He noted that prosecutors from various offices — including Bragg’s predecessor — had investigated the affair and had never charged him with a crime.

He wrote that the potential indictment was an attempt to derail his presidential campaign.

“They can’t win at the voting booth, so they have to go to a tool that has never been used in such a way in our country, armed law enforcement,” Trump wrote. Former Justice Department officials have accused Trump of ordering him to act in ways that helped him politically when he was in office.

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