It took five years for prosecutors to bring charges against Donald Trump over his hush-money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels. Now, it might take years longer to resolve the case.
As the dust settled the day after Mr. Trump’s historic arraignment – the first time a former U.S. president has been criminally indicted – the potential timelines for the case began to become clear. The legal battle is almost certain to stretch into next year’s presidential election season, setting up the prospect of Mr. Trump sitting in trial at the same time as he is trying to reclaim the White House.
Questions about the indictment itself also continued to mount, centred mostly on a complicated legal theory at the heart of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s case.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, continued to rage on social media, aiming to use the charges as a rallying cry for his base. “REPUBLICANS IN CONGRESS SHOULD DEFUND THE DOJ AND FBI UNTIL THEY COME TO THEIR SENSES,” he wrote Wednesday on his Truth Social platform, referring to the government department and law-enforcement agency that will decide whether he faces additional indictments in two different cases.
The former president won’t be back in court until Dec. 4, meaning the earliest a trial could start would be on the eve of the caucuses and primaries that will pick presidential nominees. The first of these are set for February, 2024.
More likely, the case will stretch through next year, with a long stretch of legal wrangling before any trial gets under way. Mr. Trump’s lawyers have already indicated they will file motions aiming to get the case dismissed. Mr. Trump has floated the possibility of demanding a change of venue to Staten Island, the most conservative part of New York City.
Julie Novkov, a political scientist at the University of Albany, said she expected Mr. Trump would also launch a constitutional challenge to Mr. Bragg’s ability to lay charges against a former president. While there is nothing in the U.S. constitution that prohibits charging a president – or for a person charged or convicted from serving as president – this has never previously been tested in court.
Given Mr. Trump’s expansive interpretation of executive power and privilege, Prof. Novkov said he would probably give it a shot. “They would be saying that presidents have a greater degree of freedom to do things than ordinary people,” she said. “My guess is that they will try that. Trump will want to make political hay.”
Within the indictment itself, she said, Mr. Trump’s lawyers will most likely focus their attacks on one central legal element of Mr. Bragg’s case: his contention that the former president’s alleged crimes amount to serious felonies rather than more minor misdemeanours.
All 34 charges relate to the falsifying of legal documents to cover up the payment to Ms. Daniels, made before the 2016 election in exchange for her keeping quiet about an alleged extramarital affair with Mr. Trump. For such crimes to be felonies, prosecutors must prove they were done in order to cover up another crime.
Mr. Bragg has suggested several possible additional crimes that were the subject of the coverup, including federal and state campaign finance violations, and state tax fraud. It is unclear whether Mr. Bragg can use the federal campaign finance laws in this case, as he is a state-level prosecutor – another issue that could draw out the case.
While Mr. Bragg this week characterized Mr. Trump’s actions as part of a conspiracy to suppress damaging stories ahead of the election, he did not include conspiracy or other charges in the indictment.
Experts cautioned, however, that prosecutors have yet to lay all their cards on the table, so it is not clear how strong their case may be.
“The DA is experienced enough to know not to bring a case of this profile and magnitude unless he has complete confidence in the quality of his evidence and likelihood of prevailing at trial,” Jacob Frenkel, a former federal prosecutor, wrote in an e-mail.
Whatever the legal outcome, simply having the case run through the election would hurt Mr. Trump’s White House bid, contended Chris Edelson, a lawyer and professor at American University in Washington.
“It will be a distraction, something that he has to attend to. During a campaign, there will be continued reporting on it and questions about it,” Prof. Edelson said. “A significant number of Americans are tired of him and this is not going to help.”
And there may be more legal travails to come. Federally, special counsel Jack Smith is investigating both Mr. Trump’s handling of classified documents and his attempt to overturn the 2020 election. In Georgia, prosecutors are mulling state-level charges related to 2020. In the end, Mr. Bragg’s case could end up being just the tip of the iceberg.