A New York grand jury indicted former President Donald Trump on Thursday over his alleged role in a scheme to pay hush money to a porn actress during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The indictment, voted on by the grand jury on Thursday afternoon and filed under seal, according to the individuals, thrusts the country onto uncharted and uncertain legal and political ground.
The case against Trump, brought by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, is centered on a $130,000 payment to an adult film actress, Stormy Daniels, who claimed she had an affair with Trump. Trump has denied the affair. He is the first former president to ever be criminally charged.
Trump’s lawyers continued to maintain the former president’s innocence on Thursday.
“President Trump has been indicted. He did not commit any crime,” the attorneys Joe Tacopina and Susan Necheles said in a statement. “We will vigorously fight this political prosecution in Court.”
Trump released a statement shortly after the news of the indictment broke, calling it a “witch-hunt,” and saying the move was an attempt by Democrats to interfere in the 2024 election.
“This is Political Persecution and Election Interference at the highest level in history,” Trump wrote in his statement. “The Democrats have lied, cheated and stolen in their obsession with trying to ‘Get Trump,’ but now they’ve done the unthinkable — indicting a completely innocent person in an act of blatant Election Interference.”
Trump also went after District Attorney Alvin Bragg, saying he was “doing Joe Biden’s dirty work.”
The district attorney’s office requested that Trump surrender on Friday, but Trump’s lawyers replied that the timeline was too tight, saying the U.S. Secret Service needed more time to prepare, according to a law enforcement official. Tacopina confirmed the exchange, adding that no date had been set for the former president’s surrender.
“This evening we contacted Mr. Trump’s attorney to coordinate his surrender to the Manhattan D.A.’s Office for arraignment on a Supreme Court indictment, which remains under seal,” a spokesperson for the district attorney’s office said. “Guidance will be provided when the arraignment date is selected.”
Trump has already tried to use the charges to rally his base, calling on his followers to protest and “take back our nation.” But there’s no precedent for a presidential candidate campaigning during his own criminal trial. And while the case could stretch beyond November 2024, a conviction before then would spark a host of constitutional issues.
Despite concern that Trump’s indictment could spark protests from his supporters, a spokesperson for New York Mayor Eric Adams said on Thursday that there were no credible threats of violence.
“The NYPD continues to monitor all activity and there are no credible threats to the city at this time,” Adams spokesperson Fabien Levy said. “The NYPD always remains prepared to respond to events happening on the ground and keep New Yorkers safe.” An NYPD spokesperson confirmed that all officers had been ordered to appear in uniform at 7 a.m. Friday.
Dozens of court and police officers swarmed lower Manhattan after the indictment was announced. A chopper hovered overhead. Outside the courthouse, a handful of pro-indictment protesters praised the grand jury’s decision.
Bragg left the courthouse just after 7 p.m., ducking into his car without taking questions from reporters. Police officers surrounded his black SUV. A group of about 10 protesters in favor of the indictment draped a 25-foot banner outside the courthouse that read “Trump lies all the time.”
“I’m out here celebrating the fact that one of the most evil men on the planet has been stopped at least temporarily,” said Robert Hoatson, 71, who drove over from West Orange, N.J., after he saw the news on TV. “I’m so proud to be an American today.”
Hoatson runs a nonprofit for victims of sexual abuse. He held two signs, one that read “Throw away the key” and the other that said “Lock him up.”
Trump’s indictment follows the unrelated December conviction of his family business, the Trump Organization, for tax fraud in a case also prosecuted by Bragg.
The indictment of Trump stems from the 2018 federal conviction of his former lawyer Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations for facilitating the payment to Daniels. That payment came during the heart of the 2016 presidential campaign. And both Cohen and federal prosecutors have said that he acted “in coordination with and at the direction of” the former president.
“I stand by my testimony and the evidence that I provided to the district attorney of New York,” Cohen said on Thursday during an interview on MSNBC. While the indictment is “significant,” Cohen said, “it’s extremely important that we let the process work out, and that people do still understand that there is a presumption of innocence in this country.”
The Trump Organization later reimbursed Cohen for the payment to Daniels, prosecutors said in court filings. The company’s executives authorized $420,000 in payments to Cohen in an effort to cover his original payment and tax liabilities, and to reward him with a bonus, according to prosecutors. The Trump Organization falsely recorded those payments in their books as legal expenses, prosecutors said.
On Thursday, Daniels’ attorney Clark Brewster said that he had spoken by phone with Daniels, and that he believed she was “relieved” by the news.
“I think she’s relieved,” said Brewster during an interview on CNN. “It’s a fight against his rejection of truth and his manufacturing of stories that really motivated her to try to cooperate in any way, certainly to get the truth out.”
Federal prosecutors in the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office subsequently pursued a criminal inquiry into whether those payments violated campaign finance law, but they later ended the probe without bringing charges.
The company’s former chief financial officer, Allen H. Weisselberg, who was given immunity by federal prosecutors in their investigation of the hush money that led to the charges against Cohen, pleaded guilty to an unrelated tax fraud scheme in August 2022.
Cohen testified before the grand jury in the Manhattan district attorney’s investigation of Trump. It’s unclear whether Weisselberg, who is now serving a five-month jail sentence, was also called as a witness.
Though the district attorney’s office offered Trump the opportunity to testify before the grand jury prior to his indictment, he declined to do so.
The indictment is sure to cloud Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign and triggers a number of unprecedented scenarios. If he pleads not guilty and the case goes to trial, a process that can take many months, he could face the possibility of campaigning for the White House while undergoing a criminal trial. And if he were to win a second term while facing or serving a prison sentence, that would give rise to a host of constitutional issues.
Trump has said an indictment would not stop him from campaigning for another term. When asked whether he would stay in the 2024 race if formally charged, Trump told reporters at CPAC in March: “Oh absolutely. I wouldn’t even think about leaving.” He has said his supporters were “very upset” about the multiple investigations he’s facing, and added that he thought the probes would “enhance” his poll numbers.
Throughout his presidency and in his post-White House life, Trump has cast himself as a victim of partisan “witch hunt” investigations targeting him and his business dealings. His fellow Republicans have largely echoed that claim, though it remains to be seen whether those running for the party’s presidential nomination will rally to Trump’s side or cast him off.
At least one potential 2024 Republican rival, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, has said that Trump should end his campaign if charged.
“It is a dark day for America when a former President is indicted on criminal charges,” Hutchinson said in a statement following the news of the indictment. “Donald Trump should not be the next president, but that should be decided by the voters.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence, another potential GOP contender in 2024, called the indictment “an outrage,” but declined to say whether Trump should drop out of the race if he’s convicted.
“It’s a long way to that decision. I promised to answer that question if that approaches,” Pence said during an interview on CNN on Thursday night. “It’s a possibility that a judge would even throw this case out before we even go to trial, so I don’t want to talk about hypotheticals,” Pence told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
BDST: 1024 HRS, MAR 31, 2023