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Former US President Donald Trump is facing potential charges in New York related to hush money payments made to adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels, during his 2016 presidential campaign. The case involves a $130,000 payment that Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer, made to Daniels to keep quiet about an alleged sexual encounter with Trump in 2006. Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to campaign finance violations tied to his arranging the payments to Daniels and another woman, among other crimes, and has said Trump directed him to make the payment. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has reportedly presented evidence to a grand jury about the payment, which could lead to charges against Trump for falsifying business records or violating state campaign finance law.
Trump, who is seeking the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2024, has denied the affair and accused Bragg, an elected Democrat, of targeting him for political gain. In a social media post on Saturday, Trump said he expected to be arrested on Tuesday and called on his followers to protest, but a spokesperson later said Trump has not been notified of any pending arrest. If indicted, Trump would have to surrender and appear for arraignment in court, but he could be released on his own recognisance and allowed to head home. His case could take more than a year to move from indictment to trial, and he could face the possibility of standing trial in the middle of the 2024 presidential campaign or even after election day. If elected, he would not hold the power to pardon himself of state charges.
Daniels first described her alleged tryst with Trump in 2011 during an interview with In Touch Weekly magazine, but the story was not published at the time due to legal threats from Cohen. The story resurfaced in 2018, weeks before Daniels told CBS News’ 60 Minutes programme that she had been threatened shortly after she agreed to speak to the magazine in 2011. She said she later accepted the hush money from Cohen because she was concerned for the safety of her family. Daniels has become a vocal critic of Trump and his administration, drawing attention to issues such as campaign finance violations and the use of nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) to silence victims of sexual assault.
The case involving Daniels has sparked a legal battle between her and the president’s camp. Daniels filed a lawsuit to have the NDA invalidated, claiming that Trump never signed the agreement and therefore it was not legally binding. Despite efforts to keep the story quiet, Daniels remains a controversial figure in US politics and popular culture. She has gained significant media attention in recent years and is willing to be a witness for Manhattan prosecutors investigating the payment.
The potential charges against Trump could be for falsifying business records or violating state campaign finance law. To elevate the charge of falsifying business records to a felony, prosecutors must prove that Trump falsified records to cover up a second crime. One possibility is that prosecutors could assert the payment itself violated state campaign finance law since it was effectively an illegal secret donation to boost his campaign. However, using state election law to elevate a false business record charge is an untested legal theory, and Trump’s lawyers would be sure to challenge it. Trump could also challenge whether the statute of limitations should have run out, but he may argue that serving as US president should not apply.
If charged, Trump would become the first former US president to face criminal prosecution. Polls show him leading other potential rivals for the Republican nomination, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. However, his legal troubles could complicate his political ambitions and further divide his party. Some Republicans have distanced themselves from Trump after the deadly Capitol riot on January 6 and his false claims of election fraud. Others have remained loyal to him and his populist agenda. The outcome of Trump’s case could have significant implications for US democracy and the rule of law.