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The Case Against Trump: The Charges and the Facts Behind Them

Here’s what’s new (and what’s not) in the Manhattan DA’s indictment of Trump.
April 4, 2023
The Case Against Trump: The Charges and the Facts Behind Them
(Composite / Photos: GettyImages)

The Manhattan grand jury’s indictment of former President Donald J. Trump was unsealed today following his historic arrest, booking, and plea of not guilty. The 34-count indictment charges Trump with falsifying business records in the first degree under New York Penal Law 175.10 involving—among other things—his alleged payment of $130,000 to adult film star Stormy Daniels to keep her quiet about his sexual relationship with her, which he denies, in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. Manhattan D.A. Alvin Bragg identifies multiple hush-money payments for which Trump allegedly reimbursed his former attorney Michael Cohen, plus a series of actions to hide the payments, falsely claiming in a string of records that the money paid Cohen was for legal fees.

The charging documents also outline a pressure campaign, allegedly orchestrated by Trump, to keep Cohen quiet once the FBI caught on to things in April 2018.

In a press conference after the arraignment, Bragg framed the case as being about “34 false statements made to cover up other crimes,” including “New York election law,” which makes it “a crime to conspire to promote a candidacy by unlawful means,” as well as a “federal election law cap on contribution limits” in campaigns. These underlying crimes are what make the counts of falsifying records felonies (rather than misdemeanors) within the applicable statute of limitations, although the charging documents don’t outline those laws in any detail. Because Manhattan is the “financial center of the world,” with an interest in “true and accurate record-keeping,” Bragg stated, his office is the right one to bring this case.

An accompanying “statement of facts” from Bragg’s office lays out the details. Cohen, who pleaded guilty to eight federal charges arising from the Stormy Daniels payoff, including tax evasion, bank fraud, and campaign finance violations, figures prominently in the record. After an FBI search of the home and offices of Cohen (called “Attorney A” in the document), Trump allegedly told him to “stay strong,” and on April 21, 2018, he sent a tweet encouraging Cohen not to “flip.” These kinds of details bear, for example, on whether Trump had the requisite criminal intent to dupe voters about the election when he engaged in the hush-money schemes, rather than aiming only to avert his wife’s ire.

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But contrary to the expectations of many commentators, Bragg’s case does not hinge exclusively on Cohen’s testimony. The potential testimony of a number of other people is discussed in the statement of facts, including:

  • A former Trump Tower doorman who was allegedly trying to sell information regarding a child he claimed Trump fathered out of wedlock, and whom American Media, Inc. (AMI) paid $30,000 for exclusive rights to the story.
  • Woman 1, who is presumably Karen McDougal, another woman who received $150,000 in hush money from the Trump team and “alleged she had a sexual relationship with the Defendant while he was married.” When Cohen told Trump that he’d open up a company for the transfer of money to McDougal, Trump asked: “‘So what do we got to pay for this? One fifty?’ and suggested paying by cash.”
  • David Pecker, chairman and chief executive officer of AMI, which owned the National Enquirer. The indictment alleges:

In or about September 2018, AMI entered into a non-prosecution agreement with the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York in connection with AMI’s payoff of Woman 1, admitting that “[a]t no time during the negotiation or acquisition of [Woman 1’s] story did AMI intend to publish the story or disseminate information about it publicly.”

Allegedly, AMI admitted that it made the payment to ensure that Woman 1 “did not publicize damaging allegations” about Trump “before the 2016 presidential election and thereby influence that election.”

  • AMI’s chief content officer, who contacted Cohen about McDougal and was involved in other parts of the scheme.
  • Woman 2, who is presumably Stormy Daniels.
  • Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization chief financial officer, who pleaded guilty to a 15-year tax fraud scheme in connection with the company.
  • Lawyer B, who was counsel for Daniels, and negotiated the deal with Cohen and received a $30,000 wire on her behalf.
  • The Trump Organization’s controller, who was involved in the invoicing of the “retainer” repayments to Cohen, but doesn’t necessarily know anything about Trump’s state of mind.
  • The Trump Organization’s accounts payable supervisor, who recorded each payment from the Trump Organization’s electronic accounting system, and likewise might not know about Trump’s intentions.
  • Lawyer C, who in April 2018, offered a backchannel between Cohen and Trump, writing, “you have friends in high places.” This person’s testimony could conceivably link the scheme to Trump himself. The charging documents continue:

On or about June 14, 2018, Lawyer C emailed Lawyer A a news clip discussing the possibility of Lawyer A cooperating, and continued to urge him not to cooperate with law enforcement, writing, “The whole objective of this exercise by the [federal prosecutors] is to drain you, emotionally and financially, until you reach a point that you see them as your only means to salvation.” In the same email , Lawyer C, wrote, “You are making a very big mistake if you believe the stories these ‘journalists’ are writing about you. They want you to cave. They want you to fail. They do not want you to persevere and succeed.”

  • Lawyer D, Cohen’s lawyer, who had close relationship with Lawyer C and communicated with Lawyer C about Cohen not cooperating with the government.

At this stage, the public has no sense of the additional evidence Bragg’s grand jury has undoubtedly accumulated in the form of written records or perhaps even audiotape evidence to back up the fundamental theory that Trump engaged in this elaborate silencing scheme to help him win the presidency. And we won’t know more for some time.

The government has asked the judge for a January 16, 2024 trial date—two weeks before the currently scheduled date of the New Hampshire primary for the 2024 presidential race. Trump’s lawyers made a bid for trial to begin later that spring. The case will likely be delayed in any event, while Trump’s lawyers file a wave of motions to dismiss the indictment or reduce the charges to a misdemeanor (which would fall outside the statute of limitations) and, failing that, to narrow the evidence that goes to the jury, among other things.

Meanwhile, Special Counsel Jack Smith continues apace with his investigations of Trump’s role in the attempts to subvert the 2020 election (including the January 6th insurrection) and his Mar-a-Lago withholding of presidential records from the government. Not to mention the Fulton County, Georgia D.A.’s probe of Trump’s efforts to get officials to “find” votes to swing that state in his column in 2020, or the Justice Department and SEC’s investigation of his Truth Social initial public offering.

But by the time any additional indictments issue, the collective shock of indicting a former president will have worn off. Ultimately, this one will be resolved not by politics, but by the rule of law.

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Kimberly Wehle

Kimberly Wehle is a contributor to The Bulwark. She served as an assistant U.S. attorney and an associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation. She is currently a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. An ABC News legal contributor, she is the author of three books with HarperCollins: How to Read the Constitution—and Why, What You Need to Know About Voting—and Why, and, most recently, How to Think Like a Lawyer and Why—A Common-Sense Guide to Everyday Dilemmas. Her new book, Pardon Power: How the Pardon System Works—and Why, is forthcoming in September 2024 from Woodhall Press. @kimwehle.