Donald Trump was formally charged on 34 counts of falsifying business records by US prosecutors today, but immediately branded the act a political witch hunt as he drummed up support for his presidential bid.
The charges are all felonies under New York State law, with a low-level felony charge carrying a four-year jail sentence in New York. The former US President pleaded not guilty to all charges at his arraignment on Tuesday at the Manhattan Criminal Court.
Speaking at his resort Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, after returning from New York, the 76-year-old lambasted the charges but didn’t go into detail as he railed about other cases against him.
Last week, Trump was indicted by a grand jury in Manhattan, becoming the first president in US history to face criminal charges.
In a statement after the indictment was handed down, he told a crowd of supporters: “This is political persecution and election interference at the highest level in history.
“Everybody said this is not really an indictment. Our lawyers came to me and they said ‘there’s nothing here, they’re not even saying what you did’.
“I never thought anything like this could happen in America.”
The charges relate to $US130,000 in hush money Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen paid to adult film star Stormy Daniels during the final stages of the 2016 presidential election. The payment was to stop Daniels speaking publicly about an alleged affair she had with Trump in 2006. Trump denies he slept with Daniels and denies any wrongdoing related to the matter.
Manhattan’s District Attorney Alvin Bragg formally brought the charges against Trump and said: “Everyone stands equal before the law. No amount of money or power changes that.”
What is the crime?
Trump is accused of falsifying business records, when the Trump Organisation allegedly recorded the payment made to Daniels as a business expense incurred during the 2016 presidential election campaign.
Under New York Law, the act of falsifying business records is a felony. While hush money payments are not considered crimes, Trump’s election campaign is accused of concealing it as an expense. Cohen, who carried out the payment, was reimbursed by the Trump Organisation but there was no legal agreement between Trump and Cohen and no indication Cohen was on a retainer with Trump to make the payment to Daniels.
Trump is accused of signing reimbursement cheques to Cohen while in office in 2017, which would constitute a form of business fraud.
While the hush money payment is at the centre of the indictment, several other charges were revealed at the arraignment, including an attempt to unlawfully influence the 2016 presidential election by suppressing damaging stories.
Why has he been charged now?
The indictment was five years in the making after Cohen alleged in 2018 that Trump instructed him to make the payment. The investigation into the payment hit a dead end in the years following as the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and prosecutors instead fought to have Trump and his company charged on tax fraud.
According to the New York Times, Alvin Bragg was able to revive the case against Trump after revisiting the evidence collected by the former district attorney and prosecutors tied to the payment to Daniels. Bragg however, remained sceptical about Cohen’s awareness of Trump’s financial activities.
Meetings with Cohen and his lawyer convinced Bragg to assemble a grand jury. Prosecutors presented evidence to the jury and brought several witnesses, including former Trump campaign officials, to the stand. Cohen also testified, helping Bragg and his team of lawyers to file an indictment against the former president.
Will it affect re-election bid?
It remains to be seen how this indictment will affect Trump’s efforts to run for the presidential office a second time. There is nothing in US law preventing a presidential candidate from running for the office while facing criminal charges.
Trump is leading the Republican nomination for the 2024 presidential election in several polls, and commentators have noted the charges are galvanising support for him among Republicans.
What are the other lawsuits?
Trump faces at least 19 separate legal cases, most of which pertain to his time as president.
The charges are both civil and criminal. They include election interference during the 2020 presidential elections, his role in the incitement of the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, and financial impropriety allegedly carried out while in office.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing in all cases and has filed countersuits and motions to have them dismissed.
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons.