On Tuesday, former US President and 2024 Republican hopeful Donald Trump was officially charged with 34 felony counts in Manhattan’s criminal court. The charges were revealed in an unsealed indictment and statement of facts, and were accompanied by a news conference by New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg. The charges relate to payments made to adult film star Stormy Daniels by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen in exchange for her silence over an alleged affair with Trump a decade earlier. The charges are focused on how reimbursements to Cohen paid by then-President Trump were classified – or misclassified – in official business documents.
The indictment charges Trump with 34 counts of “falsifying business records in the first degree”, a class E felony, the lowest grade in the highest category of charge in the New York penal system. While typically a misdemeanour under New York state law, falsifying business records rises to a felony if it is done with “intent to defraud and intent to commit another crime and aid and conceal the commission thereof”.
The main question the charges raise is what alleged secondary crime the falsification of business records were done in service to – either in committing or hiding. Prosecutors alleged Trump “violated election laws” and falsified records as part “of a scheme with others to influence the 2016 presidential election by identifying and purchasing negative information about him to suppress its publication and benefit [Trump’s] electoral prospects”. Prosecutors described that scheme as a “catch and kill” operation.
Legal analysts have been quick to note that New York state indictments tend to offer fewer details than in other jurisdictions, with Bragg saying on Tuesday that the charging document does not include more information about Trump’s alleged election law violations – or other secondary crimes in question – because “the law does not so require.” Bragg further stressed that New York prosecutors only need to show the falsification of business records was done with intent to either commit or hide another crime. They are not required to prosecute that secondary crime.
Writing in a New York Times op-ed, Karen Friedman Agnifilo, a former Manhattan chief assistant district attorney, and Norman Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, pushed back on claims the case has been built on shaky ground. “With the release of the indictment and accompanying statement of facts, we can now say that there’s nothing novel or weak about this case,” they wrote on Wednesday, noting that “the creation of phony documentation to cover up campaign finance violations has been repeatedly prosecuted in New York.”
Former federal prosecutor Alan Baron said, based on what is known, it appears to be a “very strong case” against Trump. John Malcolm, a former federal prosecutor and legal expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank said the former president could prevail. “You never want to give short shrift to 34 felony counts, particularly if you’re sitting at the defence table, but [Trump] has strong defences he can assert to these charges.” For his part, District Attorney Bragg has maintained the strength of the case, and the investigation behind it.