A Manhattan grand jury has indicted former President Donald Trump on more than 30 charges, reportedly related to his hush-money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels. This case seems extremely flimsy on its merits and is especially problematic given the historic importance of a first-ever indictment of a former president.
Hush payments may be sleazy, but let’s be clear, they are legal. The violation of the law in the Daniels payment may have been in how it was logged in the Trump Organization accounts, and at most, this is a misdemeanor. The idea of going after a former president, with all the political consequences involved, on such a piddling charge was so self-evidently absurd that no minimally self-respecting prosecutor would do it. But it seems that Alvin Bragg, Manhattan’s District Attorney, is crossing the Rubicon.
“The question, then, was how to bootstrap up the alleged misdemeanor into a felony. Under New York law, the false bookkeeping could be a felony if it was in service of another crime, which Bragg apparently posits was a campaign-finance violation. Yet it’s not clear that the payment was a campaign-finance violation at all. Trump can plausibly argue that he wished to avoid personal embarrassment. It is easy to imagine the same people going after Trump now equally objecting if he had used campaign funds, on grounds that a payment resulting from an alleged affair is a personal matter.”
There’s also a question of whether the statute of limitations has expired on these supposed offenses, and of the credibility of two of the star witnesses, confessed fraudster Michael Cohen and a porn star, among other issues. It’s important to note that federal prosecutors passed on this case, and Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus Vance, decided it wasn’t worth pursuing.
Bragg promised to prosecute Trump during his campaign for DA, and all signs point to this being an instance of promises made, promises kept. But deciding that a certain individual should be prosecuted, and then twisting the law to find a way to nail him, is a gross violation of how our system of justice is supposed to work.
The prosecution is going to create an unprecedented situation, with a former president and the leading candidate for a major-party nomination dragged through a criminal case as he runs for president. It is going to heighten emotions and drive further political divisions. It should be incumbent on everyone to avoid irresponsible rhetoric, even though Trump, with his taste for the incendiary and conspiratorial, likely won’t do that.
In sheer political terms, Trump will benefit, at least in the short and medium term, from the attention and Republican sympathy that will come with the indictment. Any further indictments, whatever the merits, will inevitably be discredited to some extent or other by Bragg going first with these dubious charges. There will surely be other, unforeseen consequences, none of which are likely to be good.
This act might serve Bragg’s political purposes, but the country will face the consequences.