By Luc Cohen
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Donald Trump has been indicted by a New York City grand jury, his lawyer said on Thursday, after the prosecutor who filed the charges came under political pressure for not bringing them against the former U.S. president sooner.
While the charges against Trump were not immediately released – the first ever against a U.S. president – they come after Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg revived an investigation into any role Trump had in a $130,000 hush money payment his lawyer made to a porn star during Trump’s 2016 campaign for the White House.
Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen has said he made the payment to silence Daniels about an affair she says she had with Trump in 2006. Trump denies the affair took place.
Bragg’s charges come at a critical time, as Trump is running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.
Bragg, a Democrat, took office in January 2022, after his predecessor indicted the former president’s family company and its top financial executive over a 15-year tax fraud scheme.
A prosecutor leading that probe, Mark Pomerantz, resigned in February 2022 after Bragg declined to charge Trump himself with financial crimes. Pomerantz has publicly criticized Bragg’s decision not to bring charges and published a book about the investigation.
Pomerantz has said concerns about potentially losing the case should be weighed against the possibility of “promoting disrespect for the law” by not bringing charges when warranted.
Bragg has defended his decision.
“I bring hard cases when they are ready,” Bragg said in a Feb. 7 press conference. “Mark Pomerantz’s case simply was not ready. So I said to my team, let’s keep working.”
Before the charges were brought, a spokesperson for Bragg referred to the prosecutor’s earlier statement. Trump has called the probe a “witch hunt.”
A grand jury began hearing evidence in the case earlier this year.
Cohen previously testified that Trump directed him to arrange the payment, made in the run-up to the 2016 election, and pleaded guilty in December 2018 to campaign finance violations and other charges. Trump and his allies have sought to undermine Cohen’s credibility.
“For the DA’s office to charge former President Trump, a victim of extortion, with a crime because his then lawyer, Michael Cohen, a convicted liar, paid the extortionist would be unprecedented and outrageous selective prosecution,” Trump lawyer Susan Necheles said in a statement earlier this month.
Proving Trump intended to commit a crime may be one of Bragg’s biggest challenges, said Jennifer Beidel, a partner at law firm Saul Ewing and former federal prosecutor.
“One would think that the former president would try to argue that people independent of him were making their own choices about what to do, maybe out of motivation to please him, but maybe not with his direction,” Beidel said.
Bragg, the first Black district attorney in Manhattan, previously served as a federal prosecutor and as a senior official in the New York State Attorney General’s office, where he oversaw a lawsuit that forced the former president’s namesake charitable foundation to dissolve.
Shortly after taking office, he came under criticism for a plan to refrain from prosecuting some minor offenses, reduce pretrial detention and limit sentence length. Bragg argued that “over-incarceration” has not improved public safety.
In the biggest trial victory so far in his tenure, his office last December won the conviction of the Trump Organization on tax fraud charges. That came after Allen Weisselberg, its former chief financial officer, pleaded guilty and testified against the company at trial.
Several observers have defended Bragg against Pomerantz’s criticism.
“Bragg’s decision not to pull the trigger in February 2022 … actually may have been courageous, not cowardly,” Andrew Weissman, a former federal prosecutor, wrote in a review of Pomerantz’s book in the Washington Post. “He hardly had anything to gain and a lot to lose politically by the decision.”
(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; Additional reporting by Karen Freifeld; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Diane Craft and Daniel Wallis)