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Inside the high-stakes prosecution of a former president

Trump's trial update: Yesterday's events and what's next

Former U.S. President Donald Trump has made history by becoming the first president to face criminal charges before a court of justice in the United States. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg charged Trump on Monday with falsifying business records in New York to conceal damaging information and illegal activity from American voters before and after the 2016 election.

Trump faced a formal proceeding that lasted nearly an hour and was indicted on 34 charges, primarily related to the $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels. Prosecutors allege that the payment was made to conceal negative information about Trump ahead of the 2016 presidential election and to promote his candidacy.

According to a press release issued by the Manhattan District Attorney's office, Trump and his associates implemented a "catch and kill" plan during the pre-election period in 2016. Trump allegedly made false entries in business records to keep the information hidden from the public.

"The State of New York alleges that Donald Trump repeatedly and fraudulently falsified business records in New York in order to withhold damaging information from the voting public during the 2016 presidential election," said Attorney Bragg.

"Wow I'm going to get arrested"

Former US President Donald Trump appeared in court on Monday, January 24th, after being indicted on 34 charges related to falsifying business records in New York. Trump turned himself in at the office of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg before appearing before Judge Juan Mercan. The former President was fingerprinted but not photographed or handcuffed, and about 60 journalists were present in the courtroom, but they were not allowed to use electronic devices.

Wearing a dark blue suit and red tie, the 76-year-old Trump had earlier entered the courthouse expressionless and greeted supporters with a raised fist. He entered the courtroom with his lawyers and pleaded "not guilty" to the charges.

Prosecutors plan to call Stormy Daniels as a witness. Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, is the pornographic actress whom Trump paid $130,000 in 2016 to keep quiet about an affair she said they had had.

Trump was released without bail and was not banned from public postings, but the judge warned him that he would review his decision. During the proceedings, Trump remained calm, and one of the few times he looked as angry as he did was during the second presidential debate with Hillary Clinton two days after the release of the infamous tape in October 2016.

Before appearing in court, Trump had made a post on social media expressing disbelief at his arrest, saying "I'm headed to Lower Manhattan, to the Court. It seems so surreal – Wow, I'm going to get arrested. I don't believe this is happening in America."

"The role of American Media Inc."

According to the indictment, the editor and managing director of the National Enquirer approached then-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen in October 2016 and relayed to him that Daniels claimed to have had contact with Trump.

Cohen reportedly negotiated with Daniels for the payment of a monetary fee to "ensure her silence." Trump, however, reportedly instructed Cohen to delay paying Daniels as long as possible.

According to court documents and court hearing minutes, from August 2015 to December 2017, Trump orchestrated his scheme.

In one case, American Media Inc (AMI) paid $30,000 to a former janitor at Trump Tower who claimed to know the story of a child Trump fathered out of wedlock.

In another case, AMI paid $150,000 to a woman who claimed to have had a sexual relationship with Trump. When he asked a lawyer then working as "special counsel" for the Trump Organization to return the money to AMI, he advised Trump that the payment would have to be made through a shell company and not in cash.

AMI — which later admitted, as part of a deal with federal prosecutors, that its stance was illegal — made false entries in its business records about the true purpose of the $150,000 payment.

On a third occasion – 12 days before the presidential election – the Trump Organization's special counsel sent $130,000 to Daniels' lawyer. The payment was made by a shell company financed through a Manhattan bank. The special counsel later pleaded guilty and served a prison sentence for the illegal payment of money during the election campaign.

Checks with a false endorsement

After winning the election, Trump reimbursed him with a series of monthly checks, first from a Donald Trump trust — set up in New York to manage the assets of the Trump Organization during his presidency — and then from personal Trump's bank account. A total of 11 checks were issued with a false justification. Nine of those checks were signed by Trump. All of the checks were handled by the Trump Organization and carried the guise of payment for legal services rendered under a non-existent agreement.

A total of 34 false entries were made in business records in New York to hide the initial payment of $130,000. In addition, scheme participants took steps to misrepresent – ​​for tax purposes – the true nature of the compensation.

"Interference in the 2024 presidential election"

Hours after being indicted by a New York court, Trump denounced "interference" by the Judiciary in the 2024 presidential election.

"I never imagined something like this was possible in America," he claimed.

"The only crime I ever committed was defending our nation against those who seek to destroy it," the real estate mogul told an audience of supporters at his Mar-a-Lago residence in Palm Beach, Florida, succeeding against Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who prosecuted him.

"When will he appear before the judge again?

Trump will appear before a judge for a hearing on the case on December 4, 2023.

His lawyers are sure to fight tooth and nail against the charges, filing motions to exclude evidence and testimony they believe will hurt his defense, as is customary in criminal cases.

What do legal analysts think?

The conviction of the former president should not, however, be considered certain. Legal circles explain that New York prosecutors have never combined a charge of falsifying a balance sheet (the payment to Daniels was declared as a Trump campaign expense) with a violation of state presidential campaign laws in their indictment.

As the prosecution is now in uncharted waters, the judge in charge may declare the evidence insufficient to establish a felony, downgrading the indictment to misdemeanors.

Even if the indictment stands, the felony charge against Trump will not land him in prison, even though his offense is punishable by up to four years in prison.

Federal justice, though stricter than state justice, rarely incarcerates those convicted of financial crimes, except high-profile defendants such as con man Bernie Madoff.

What other criminal investigations is Trump facing?

The Justice Department is investigating Trump's attempted election coup and instigation of the Jan. 6 attack on Congress.

In another criminal investigation into Trump's retention of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago mansion in Florida, federal prosecutors are looking into whether Trump willfully withheld national security information and obstructed justice.

Trump is also being investigated in Georgia for allegedly trying to influence the election. Fulton County District Attorney Fannie Willis requested a grand jury, which recommended the filing of charges, against which it is not known if Trump will be charged.

Will he be able to run again?

An indictment or even a criminal prosecution would not stop Trump from continuing his campaign, and he has shown that he will not stop no matter what.

There is nothing in US law that prevents a candidate convicted of a felony from campaigning and serving for president – even from prison.

However, Trump's arrest would certainly complicate his presidential campaign.

Although some Republican voters may rally around Trump, the case could also be a significant distraction for a candidate trying to win votes and engage in political debate.

It would also deepen the already stark division within the American political system.

Conservatives believe the justice system is biased in Trump's case, while liberals see it as a question of holding lawbreakers accountable – even those in the highest positions of power."

Trump will appear before a judge for a hearing on the case on December 4, 2023.

His lawyers are sure to fight tooth and nail against the charges, filing motions to exclude evidence and testimony they believe will hurt his defense, as is customary in criminal cases. 

Source: BBC, Guardian, AP, Reuters

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