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Former President Donald Trump has been indicted by a Manhattan grand jury

Former President Donald Trump speaks to reporters before his speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center on March 4 in National Harbor, Md.
Anna Moneymaker
/
Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump speaks to reporters before his speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center on March 4 in National Harbor, Md.

Updated March 30, 2023 at 7:23 PM ET

A Manhattan grand jury has indicted former President Donald Trump.

The charges, which are expected to be released in coming days, make Trump the first former president in United States history to be criminally indicted. The grand jury's indictment is expected to be unsealed in the coming days.

"This evening we contacted Mr. Trump's attorney to coordinate his surrender to the Manhattan DA's Office for arraignment on a Supreme Court indictment, which remains under seal. Guidance will be provided when the arraignment date is selected," a spokesperson for the Manhattan District Attorney's Office said in a statement Thursday evening.

The grand jury has been examining hush-money payments that Trump's former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, made in 2016 to adult film actress Stormy Daniels in exchange for her not going public with allegations she had an affair with Trump.

Trump has denied having had an affair with Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, although he has admitted reimbursing Cohen for money paid to her.

The former president issued an angry response to the indictment, calling it political persecution.

"This is Political Persecution and Election Interference at the highest level in history," he wrote in the statement. "From the time I came down the golden escalator at Trump Tower, and even before I was sworn in as your President of the United States, the Radical Left Democrats — the enemy of the hard-working men and women of this Country — have been engaged in a Witch-Hunt to destroy the Make America Great Again movement."

With charges looming, Trump earlier this month urged his supporters to mount large protests.

Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to numerous federal charges, including making illegal campaign contributions in the form of buying women's silence about their alleged relationships with Trump.

In his plea, Cohen outlined the scheme: In the final month of the 2016 presidential campaign, he paid $130,000 to silence Daniels, who claimed she had an affair with Trump.

Cohen got the money from a home equity line of credit. He arranged to be reimbursed over the course of the next year by Trump.

The monthly checks, totaling $420,000, were identified as a "retainer" payment for Cohen. Some came from the Trump trust, but others were signed by Trump himself, from what Cohen said was his personal account. Falsifying business records could be a felony under New York law, if it was done in furtherance of another crime, such as a campaign finance violation. Cohen said he even discussed the checks with Trump inside the White House.

Roots of the criminal case date to 2018

Then-President Trump reimbursed Michael Cohen in 2017 for funds that prosecutors say were used for hush-money during the 2016 presidential election campaign. Cohen submitted this copy of a check to him, signed by Trump, when he testified before the House Oversight Committee in 2019.
/ House Oversight Committee / Screenshot by NPR
/
House Oversight Committee / Screenshot by NPR
Then-President Trump reimbursed Michael Cohen in 2017 for funds that prosecutors say were used for hush-money during the 2016 presidential election campaign. Cohen submitted this copy of a check to him, signed by Trump, when he testified before the House Oversight Committee in 2019.

The investigation began under then-District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. in 2018 and quickly grew to become a broad probe of Trump business practices. In 2019, Vance subpoenaed Trump for eight years of tax returns. Trump fought the request all the way to the Supreme Court, twice, but on both occasions the high court sided with the DA, clearing the way for him to obtain the records in early 2021.

By the end of that year, Vance's team was preparing an indictment of Trump built around possible misrepresentations to banks and tax authorities over many years about property valuations. But it wasn't to be. In 2022, a new DA, Alvin Bragg Jr., was sworn in, and soon he decided against seeking an indictment for a wide-ranging fraud scheme.

The two lead prosecutors on the case quit. One wrote in his resignation letter, "a decision made in good faith may nevertheless be wrong. I believe that your decision not to prosecute Donald Trump now, and on the existing record, is misguided and completely contrary to the public interest."

Bragg insisted he did not drop the investigation into Trump

Bragg moved forward with prosecutions in a more limited tax fraud conspiracy. He obtained convictions against Trump's former chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, and two Trump corporate entities, for evading taxes by compensating Weisselberg and others with undeclared benefits like a luxury apartment and cars. Checks signed by Trump were presented at trial, but the former president was never charged.

This year, Bragg started presenting witnesses to a grand jury, including Michael Cohen. Earlier this month, Trump himself was invited to testify — seen as a final step before an indictment. The former president called it "a political Witch-Hunt trying to take down the leading candidate, by far, in the Republican Party."

Trump and his attorneys have consistently called the investigation "politically motivated," and a "witch hunt." They have referred to Bragg, who is Black, as "racist."

What legal questions does the case involve?

Many legal experts say they think the criminal case Bragg is likely to bring could be tough to prove in court. While Cohen was convicted under federal law, New York state statutes might be an awkward fit for the alleged crimes.

Trump's actions run afoul of New York law, according to Mark Pomerantz, a veteran prosecutor who helped lead the DA office's probe that started under Vance and who later resigned.

"The money wasn't for legal services," Pomerantz told NPR's Fresh Air last month. "That's how the payments were documented. So the documentation of the reimbursement involved the creation of false business records, which is a crime under New York law."

A crime like that rises to the felony level, Pomerantz added, if the action is undertaken to commit or conceal another crime.

In Cohen's testimony to Congress in 2019, he said he and Trump discussed the payments at the White House, when Cohen visited the Oval Office one month into Trump's presidency.

"He's showing me all around and pointing to different paintings," Cohen said. "And he says to me something to the effect of, 'Don't worry, Michael. Your January and February reimbursement checks are coming. They were FedEx'd from New York. And it takes a while for that to get through the White House system.'

"As he promised, I received the first check for the reimbursement of $70,000 not long thereafter," Cohen said, referring to the payment that combined two monthly installments.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ilya Marritz
Andrea Bernstein
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.