Donald Trump has become the first former U.S. president to face criminal charges, after being indicted Thursday over payments to porn star Stormy Daniels to cover up an alleged extramarital affair before the 2016 election.
A grand jury in New York voted Thursday to indict Mr. Trump, who is campaigning to return to the White House. The specific charges against him are expected to be made public in coming days, as prosecutors seek the former president’s arraignment.
Mr. Trump, in a statement, lashed out at what he called “Political Persecution and Election Interference at the highest level in history.” He sought to lay blame at the feet of the man who defeated him. “I believe this Witch-Hunt will backfire massively on Joe Biden,” he said.
The former president is accused of falsifying business records related to the US$130,000 payoff, which prosecutors say constituted an illegal election expense intended to help his campaign by buying Ms. Daniels’ silence.
The indictment threatens to upend the 2024 presidential race, in which Mr. Trump is the front-runner for the Republican nomination. It is also stoking fears that Mr. Trump’s supporters may stage a repeat of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. And it could break new legal ground.
“It is going to be a defining moment in U.S. presidential history,” said Douglas Brinkley, a Rice University scholar who has written extensively on that topic. He recalled president Richard Nixon, who said “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Mr. Nixon was never indicted.
The indictment of Mr. Trump marks “a new precedent,” Mr. Brinkley said. “Impeachment under Trump became the new norm. It might be now that ex-presidents are going to be charged, possibly indicted.”
Mr. Trump’s supporters quickly leapt to his defence, decrying what they called a politically motivated prosecution. The case is being led by Alvin Bragg, a Democrat who was elected Manhattan district attorney in 2021.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, one of Mr. Trump’s chief rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, condemned the indictment, calling it “the weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda.”
A lawyer for Mr. Trump told U.S. media the former president expects to surrender next Tuesday, but Mr. DeSantis raised the prospect of legal defiance. Although the case is being prosecuted in New York, Mr. Trump spends much of his time in Florida at his Mar-a-Lago home.
“Florida will not assist in an extradition request given the questionable circumstances at issue with this Soros-backed Manhattan prosecutor and his political agenda,” Mr. DeSantis wrote on Twitter.
Jacob Frenkel, a former U.S. federal public corruption prosecutor who has investigated the conduct of presidential cabinet-level officials, said Mr. Trump is likely to mount “an aggressive defence, that will begin with a motion to dismiss the indictment.”
“Any criminal indictment, without speaking to its merits, presents the risk of conviction and jail,” he said. “This indictment is anxiety-producing and worrisome for the former president.”
Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor who once advised one-time FBI director James Comey, agreed that the indictment puts Mr. Trump in peril. “Having criminal charges hanging over a presidential candidate is serious indeed,” he said.
Even so, he added, the New York indictment could be considered “rather minor” relative to other continuing investigations of Mr. Trump.
Those investigations are examining the potential criminality of Mr. Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, his role in inciting the Jan. 6 riot and his alleged mishandling of classified documents.
Responses to the indictment in the U.S. political establishment were starkly divided by partisan affiliation.
“The indictment of a former president is unprecedented. But so too is the unlawful conduct in which Trump has been engaged,” Adam Schiff, a Democratic U.S. Representative, said on Twitter. “A nation of laws must hold the rich and powerful accountable, even when they hold high office. Especially when they do. To do otherwise is not democracy.”
But those close to the former president argued that the indictment has diminished the U.S.
“Jailing your political opponents based on frivolous politically motivated accusations is something that you’d expect to see out of third-world dictatorships or banana republicans,” Kari Lake, a failed candidate for governor of Arizona who has been seen as a potential 2024 running mate for Mr. Trump, said in a statement.
“This is stuff that would make Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot – it would make them blush,” Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, said on the Thursday episode of his podcast, Triggered.
Ms. Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, has said she and Mr. Trump had sex in his hotel room during a golf tournament in 2006. Michael Cohen, who was then Mr. Trump’s lawyer, paid Ms. Daniels to sign a non-disclosure agreement the month before the 2016 election. Mr. Trump subsequently paid him back.
In 2018, Mr. Cohen admitted to having made the payment and pleaded guilty to breaking federal campaign finance laws. He then began helping prosecutors and became a public critic of his former client.
“Accountability really matters,” Mr. Cohen said on MSNBC Thursday.
Mr. Cohen has also pleaded guilty to charges related to a similar payment to former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal, who says Mr. Trump cheated on his wife, Melania Trump, with her in 2006 and 2007.
Mr. Trump has alternated between denying that he slept with Ms. Daniels and Ms. McDougal and insisting that the episodes were so long ago that he should not be prosecuted. He has maintained that he did not break any laws.
The former president had tried to pre-empt the charges by going on the attack.
He had also fallen back on the divisive rhetoric that marked his time in office, accusing Mr. Bragg, who is Black, of being “racist.” He pointed to donations to the prosecutor’s election campaign from a group tied to George Soros, the liberal philanthropist, who is a hated figure among the U.S. right. In the U.S., many top prosecutors, including Mr. Bragg, are elected officials.
Publicly, most Republicans have made a show of joining in the attacks. They have signalled they will launch congressional investigations of Mr. Bragg and his office. But some of Mr. Trump’s nomination rivals have begun using the accusations against him.
Even as Mr. DeSantis criticized Mr. Bragg as a “Soros-funded prosecutor” last week, he mocked Mr. Trump for the never-ending soap opera that seems to surround him.
Donald Trump has been indicted by a grand jury in New York. What do you want to know?
The Globe’s David Shribman will answer reader questions about Trump, the indictment and what happens next to the 2024 presidential candidate.