Donald Trump first U.S. president to be indicted with 34 felony counts
Photo of Donald Trump sitting in the White House. Taken by Ana Moneymaker (getty images).

Donald Trump first U.S. president to be indicted with 34 felony counts

On Mar. 30, former President Donald Trump was indicted by a Manhattan grand jury, an official accusation that has previously never been lobbed at a current or former president in the United States. On Apr. 5, Trump was charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in a historic case over allegations that he orchestrated hush-money payments to two women before the 2016 U.S. election to suppress publication of their sexual encounters with him, as well as to allegedly conceal other potential crimes. To these charges he pleads “not guilty.” 

“Under New York state law, it is a felony to falsify business records with intent to defraud, intent to conceal another crime,” Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said in a news conference on Apr. 4, just after Trump’s indictment. “That is exactly what this case is about: 34 false statements made to cover up other crimes. These are felony crimes in New York State no matter who you are. We cannot and will not normalize serious criminal conduct.”

The Manhattan district attorney’s office has been investigating Trump’s alleged role in covering up his involvement with adult film star Stormy Daniels leading up to the 2016 presidential election. The investigation began when Trump was still in the White House and involves a $130,000 payment made by Trump’s then-personal attorney Michael Cohen to Daniels in late October 2016, days before the election, to silence her from going public about an alleged affair with Trump a decade earlier—an affair Trump denies. Prosecutors on Tuesday alleged Trump was a part of an illegal conspiracy to undermine the integrity of the 2016 election and suppress negative information, including the $130,000 payment.

Supporters of Trump have voiced criticism of the indictment—calling the event a “witch hunt.” Some criticism has shown to have merit, as paying hush money to a porn star is not inherently a crime according to The NewYork Times. To get a felony conviction, District Attorney Alvin Bragg must show that business records were falsified to advance a second crime that is currently not being charged. The impression is that Bragg’s argument is plausible but not solid all the way through. In Bragg’s favor is that Michael Cohen, who was executing these acts on Trump’s orders, already went to prison on these facts.

Trump can still run for president if the charges he is facing are still ongoing once candidacy begins, and is even eligible to run if he is convicted.

“Nothing in the Constitution prohibits a person facing criminal charges from running for president,” Assistant Professor of Political Science Michael Gorup explained. “U.S. criminal courts place the burden of proof on the state. Someone charged with a crime is innocent until proven guilty. But, even if Trump were convicted, he would still be able to run for president. Nothing in the Constitution forbids it.” 

Gorup elaborated that Article II Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution says: “No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.” Those are the only qualifications required to become president or you must win enough votes in the electoral college to be elected.

The expected charges against Trump could carry a prison sentence of up to four years if he’s convicted. Aside from this case, Trump faces two criminal investigations by a special counsel appointed by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and another criminal probe by a local prosecutor in Georgia. 

“There are also real questions about how NY State will assemble a fair and impartial jury—there are very few people who have no opinion of Trump,” Gorup stated.

Florida Gov. Ron Desantis and Trump have been the two biggest contenders for the Republican nomination in the upcoming 2024 presidential race. It’s believed that the charges against Trump will likely have an impact on the candidacy. 

The Marist Poll found that 80% of Republicans oppose the indictment. “If he [Desantis] were to now openly criticize Trump for facing legal charges, he would be perceived as siding with Bragg and, by association, the Democrats,” Gorup said. “This would not play well in the primary. So, strangely, the indictment may strengthen Trump’s position in the primary, simply because it makes him more invulnerable to criticism from his opponents. He is now a martyr.”

Yet the indictment does make Trump more of a liability for Republicans, as well as helps Democrats make the case that four more years of Trump is four more years of scandal and chaos. It is also notable that Trump has never won a majority of votes in a presidential election. He won the electoral college in 2016, but lost the popular vote. “Trump has, at best, a very narrow path back to the White House.” 

Manhattan criminal cases typically take more than a year to go to trial, Reuters experts note, so Trump’s trial likely wouldn’t be for a while—possibly until the 2024 election season is well underway, or even after the election takes place, which would be uncharted legal territory if Trump were tried on state charges as president or president-elect. 

The charges in Manhattan will not stop prosecutors in Georgia or the Justice Department from bringing other charges against Trump in separate investigations. Due to Trump being the first former president in U.S. history to be criminally charged, there’s still a lot of uncertainty about how the process will play out and how any charges against him could be handled differently from typical criminal prosecutions. 

“The idea of incarcerating a former president—who travels everywhere with a Secret Service security detail—is uniquely complicated,” Gorup commented. “Presumably, if Trump were incarcerated, Secret Service would have to have access to him all of the time. This is uncharted territory, I don’t know what that looks like.”

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