Shortcuts / 13 April 2023

Donald Trump’s indictment

Donald Trump has become the first US president – former or current – to face criminal charges after 34 felony charges relating to business reporting fraud were made against him. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we take you through what Trump has been accused of, how this all came about, the key players involved, and what it might mean for his 2024 presidential bid…

Hasn’t this been a while coming?
There were rumblings when the 76yo posted on Truth Social – his own social media platform – on 19 March. He predicted he would be arrested and indicted within a couple of days, but it happened 2 weeks later.

Umm, indicted?
To break down the US legal lingo, an indictment is a formal notice to a defendant that they have been charged with a crime. That was issued to Trump on 31 March. On 4 April he handed himself in for the arraignment.

What the what?
An arraignment is a court hearing when someone formally hears the charges that have been laid against them and enters a plea.

Gotcha. What kind of charges is Trump facing?
They are felony charges – that means, if found guilty, it could result in jail terms of a year or more.

Ok, I’m ready for some detail… What is Trump accused of doing exactly?
The New York District Attorney’s office says Trump’s accused of “falsifying New York business records in order to conceal damaging information and unlawful activity from American voters before and after the 2016 election”.

How does that work?
We’re won’t go through each one but they are about the falsifying business records related to alleged hush money payments that Trump made to 2 women: adult film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy bunny Karen McDougal.

And that’s a criminal offence?
Well, it comes down to the accusations of falsified documents… In the formal indictment statement, the District Attorney of New York Alvin Bragg says that between 2015 and 2017, Trump allegedly “orchestrated his “catch and kill” scheme”, making payments to several people and that he concealed those payments through false business entries.

Interesting timing…
Sure is – in 2015, Trump was in the thick of his campaign to become US president, in 2016 he won the election, and in early 2017, he officially moved into the White House. So the crossover between those dates and Trump becoming president comes into play…

And that’s a crime that could see Trump go to jail?
Well, falsifying business records is normally a misdemeanour under New York state law, but it can be upgraded to a felony if the prosecutors can make the case for the defendant falsifying records to cover up another crime.

Is that what they’re doing?
District Attorney Bragg says that the alleged concealment of payments kept “damaging information and unlawful activity from American voters before and after the 2016 election”. He says that amounts to a violation of New York election law.

So what’s the backstory to all this?
To start, this indictment didn’t appear out of nowhere – this particular investigation into Trump actually dates back to the previous New York District Attorney Cy Vance – he started looking into Trump in July 2019.

What happened then?
That was when federal prosecutors wrapped up their own investigation into Trump’s alleged hush money payment to Daniels. She’s claimed in 2018 that she’d received US$130,000 of hush money from Trump during his 2016 election campaign.

What was he trying to hush up?
Daniels claims she and Trump had a night together back in 2006 and that they’d stayed in touch. At the time she met him, she was 27yo and Trump was 60yo, and his wife Melania had recently given birth to their son Barron. Trump denies he rubbed uglies with Daniels. 

Doesn’t sound like the kind of thing most political candidates would want to be aired in public, true or not…
You’re right on the hush money (pun intended…). And what’s also interesting is how Daniels received the alleged payment.

How’s that?
She claims she received it through Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen. He was known as Trump’s “fixer” and once said that he’d “take a bullet” for his boss.

They were tight?
Well, that was back then. But after 12 years of having Trump’s back, Cohen was charged and pleaded guilty in 2018 to bank fraud, tax fraud, and campaign finance violations over that payment among other issues. His admissions directly incriminated Trump too.

Daniels isn’t the only one, right?
That’s right – there’s another woman named Karen McDougal. She’s a former Playboy Bunny who claims she had an affair with Trump over 10 months in the early 2000s.

How was she paid off?
McDougal says that in 2016, she signed a deal with US tabloid The National Enquirer worth US$150,000 to exclusively tell her story, but it was never printed.

What’s that about?
That’s a strategy used in the media industry to suppress particular stories called “catch and kill”.

Anyone else?
Yep – a hush money payment of US$30,000 allegedly went to a Trump Tower doorman who claimed Trump had fathered a child with one of his employees. 

So who’s this Alvin Bragg fellow?
He’s in charge of bringing criminal cases in New York City. And unlike in Oz where those sorts of appointments are made by the government and political independence is considered a must, those positions are elected in the US. So it’s important to note Bragg’s politically aligned to the Democrats. 

What does Bragg say?
That he’s pursuing Trump because “Manhattan is home to the country’s most significant business market. We cannot allow New York businesses to manipulate their records to cover up criminal conduct”.

And who’s in Trump’s legal team?
The lawyer in charge of defending the former president is a man named Joe Tacopina. He’s a Brooklyn-born attorney who’s had many celebrity clients over the years. He’s also the owner of an Italian soccer team. As you do… 

What does he have to say?
He’s been pushing a narrative that the case is a “political persecution” of Trump. 

So what does it all mean for next year’s presidential election?
Well, conventional wisdom would tell you that what’s happened in the last couple of weeks would kill someone’s chances of securing the nomination of a major US party to be their nominee for president in the election.

But this is Donald Trump we’re talking about…
That’s true, he really seems to defy gravity on these sorts of things… There are several events in his history that political watchers say would have sunk other candidates…

Like what?
So during the 2016 campaign, The Washington Post published a video recording of Trump and television host Billy Bush having an extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005. He was also accused of sexism in the way he fought the campaign against Hilary Clinton and in his dealing with female journos. So his attitude towards women was in focus.

Hence the cover-up of claims of affairs…
That’s the theory. 

And today?
He and his supporters continue to claim it was stolen. And that’s a sentiment that still simmers with many Republican supporters.

What’s that got to do with this case?
Remember that a big part of Trump’s campaigns and time in office – and really the movement he created – was done under this slogan of ‘Make America Great Again’?

I think I’ve heard of that one…
It’s based on a premise that the establishment – the so-called Washington ‘elites’ – don’t care about regular Americans. Trump cultivated this mistrust in the system to the degree that any efforts to hold him to account is seen by many as the establishment using underhanded tactics to take their guy down.

So could all of this actually strengthen the support for Trump?
With some people, for sure. Insiders say about 30% of party supporters are rusted-on Trump supporters. After that, the party is splintered, and there are questions about who they support to become president going ahead.

Just a bit for them to work through then…
You could say that. We’ve already started to see some of Trump’s Republican political opponents including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis starting attacks on him. But others have rushed to Trump’s defence, saying this is a politically-motivated case.

So there’s a lot going on.
And that’s not all of it… Trump’s the subject of at least 4 major investigations into wrongdoing relating to his handling of White House documents, the election, the riot on the Capitol, and his finances. There’s also a rape claim against Trump that’s headed for trial this month. And his companies are fighting several other lawsuits relating to his international real estate and golf resort empire.

Can he really become the Republican nominee for president with all of that going on?
Dunno… A Democratic strategist named Simon Rosenberg said last week that any predictions about that are pure speculation because we’re talking about something that has never occurred before in American history.

And that’s the Trump way…
It sure is.

What’s next?
The primaries are still a way off – that’s the process to pick the candidates. They run from February to June next year ahead of the presidential election on 5 November 2024.

Squiz recommends:

A timeline of Trump’s indictment – CBS News

Don’t Be Fooled By AI-Generated Donald Trump Fakes – Buzzfeed

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