EXPLAINER: The charges against Donald Trump in three hush money cases

The indictment handed down by a Manhattan grand jury charges Trump with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records related to a $130,000 payment made to porn star Stormy Daniels.
This artist sketch depicts former US President Donald Trump, seated center, during his arraignment in court, April 4, 2023, in New York. (Photo | AP)
This artist sketch depicts former US President Donald Trump, seated center, during his arraignment in court, April 4, 2023, in New York. (Photo | AP)

NEW YORK: Prosecutors laid out a case of lies and cover-ups against Donald Trump on Tuesday over hush-money payments made to a porn star, a Playboy model, and a doorman to hide potentially damaging information ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

The coverup is worse than the crime, the expression goes. And in the hush money case against former President Donald Trump, prosecutors say the coverup made the crime worse.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg vowed Tuesday he would not allow Donald Trump to get away with lawbreaking after charging the former president with a string of felonies over alleged hush money payments. "These are felony crimes in New York State. No matter who you are we cannot and will not normalize serious criminal conduct," he said.

"We today uphold our solemn responsibility to ensure that everyone stands equal before the law," Bragg added.

Here's an explanation of the felony counts against Trump, the first former US president ever to face criminal charges, and what will happen next:

The charges

The indictment handed down by a Manhattan grand jury and unsealed on Tuesday charges Trump with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records related to a $130,000 payment made to porn star Stormy Daniels.

Under New York law, a defendant convicted of falsifying business records can receive between one and four years in prison.

The 34 counts of falsifying business records would normally be misdemeanors, lower-level charges that would not normally result in prison time. But they were bumped up to felonies — which carry up to four years behind bars — because, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg says, they were done in an effort to commit or conceal other crimes.

Bragg said the scheme involved Trump, his former personal attorney Michael Cohen and executives at American Media Inc, publisher of the National Enquirer tabloid. He said they were involved in what he called a "catch and kill" operation to "buy and suppress negative information to help Mr. Trump's chance of winning the election."

A look at the three cases cited by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who outlined the charges:

Case I: Trump Tower doorman

Bragg first listed the incident involving a former Trump Tower doorman who was paid $30,000 after he claimed he had information about a child who Trump had out of wedlock. That doorman, Dino Sajudin, received the payment from the parent company of the National Enquirer in exchange for signing over the rights, “in perpetuity,” to a rumor that the president had fathered a child with an employee at Trump World Tower, a skyscraper he owns near the United Nations.

The contract between Sajudin and the American Media Inc. would penalize Sajudin for $1 million if he disclosed either the rumor or the terms of his agreement with the tabloid's parent company. In an interview with The Associated Press in August 2017, the woman at the center of the rumor denied that she had had an affair with Trump.

Case II: Karen McDougal

The prosecutor also cited the case of Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who received $150,000 from American Media after claiming she had a 10-month affair with Trump in the mid-2000s. The money was to gain the rights to McDougal's story but to never run it — a practice known as “catch and kill.” The National Enquirer's parent company has acknowledged that the payments were done specifically to help Trump’s presidential campaign.

Bragg said Trump “explicitly” directed lawyer Michael Cohen, then working for the Trump Organization, to reimburse American Media in cash, then Cohen indicated to Trump that the payment should be made instead by a shell company. The alleged relationship between McDougal and Trump remained concealed until a Wall Street Journal report days before Election Day in 2016. Trump has denied her allegation.

Case III: Stormy Daniels

The third case involves the porn actor Stormy Daniels, who was paid $130,000 in exchange for her silence about a sexual encounter with Trump at Lake Tahoe, Nevada, in 2006. Trump has denied the encounter.

Bragg said that 12 days before the election on Nov. 8, 2016, Cohen had wired $130,000 to Daniels' lawyer by using a shell corporation funded through a Manhattan bank. Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, was paid after indicating she was willing to speak to either the National Enquirer or on television confirming the encounter.

Trump insisted to reporters on Air Force One in April 2018 that he didn't know about the payment made to Daniels through Cohen. But Bragg said Tuesday that Trump reimbursed Cohen after his 2016 victory with money from two sources: a trust that held the Trump Organization's assets and from his personal bank account.

Trump reimbursed Cohen with checks disguised as part of a retainer agreement while "in truth, there was no retainer agreement," Bragg said. Cohen, who has since turned against his former boss, has acknowledged paying Daniels on Trump's behalf and was sentenced to three years in prison for the hush-money case, tax evasion and other crimes.

Next legal steps

Trump pleaded not guilty in a packed courtroom to the 34 counts, which one of his lawyers, Todd Blanche, dismissed following the hearing as "boilerplate."

"We're going to fight it, we're going to fight it hard," Blanche said.

The judge gave Trump's lawyers until August 8 to file motions in the case with an initial trial date in January 2024.

Bennett Gershman, a law professor at Pace University, said Trump is essentially accused of orchestrating a "grand scheme to undermine the democratic process."

"In other words, by covering up his salacious sexual misconduct through multiple false records... he succeeded in hiding truthful information which if it were made public would have seriously damaged his quest for the presidency."

Ellen Yaroshefsky, a law professor at Hofstra University, said prosecutors may be faced with "somewhat of a hurdle to prove that the false business records were with intent to influence the election."

One potential hurdle for prosecutors could be Cohen, Trump's former lawyer, whose credibility as a witness is certain to come under attack because he is now a convicted felon.

There is also a precedent of sorts.

John Edwards, who twice sought the Democratic presidential nomination, was put on trial in 2012, accused of campaign finance violations for making hush-money payments to a mistress. The jury deadlocked and the Justice Department opted not to retry the case.

Other legal woes

Trump is facing legal scrutiny beyond the Big Apple. A special counsel is looking into his role in the January 6, 2021 assault on Congress by his supporters.

Special counsel Jack Smith is also investigating a cache of classified documents retained by Trump after he left office. The documents were recovered in an FBI raid on Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida in August 2022.

A district attorney in Georgia is also investigating Trump's attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election in the southern state.

(With inputs from AFP, AP)

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