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The Manhattan District Attorney's decision represents a dramatic escalation of the investigation and potentially puts the case on the path to criminal charges against the former President.
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ForWilliam K. Rashbaum,ben protested,Jonas E. BromwichjHurubie Meko
Manhattan prosecutors on Monday began presenting a grand jury with evidence regarding Donald J. Trump's role in paying bribes to a porn star during his 2016 presidential campaign, setting the stage for possible criminal charges against the former president in the coming months Before. According to people familiar with the matter.
The grand jury has recently convened, and the start of testimony is a clear sign that District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg is getting closer to a decision on whether or not to indict Trump.
On Monday, one of the witnesses was seen with her attorney entering the lower Manhattan building where the grand jury will be held. The witness, David Pecker, is the former editor of The National Enquirer, the tabloid that helped broker the deal with porn star Stormy Daniels.
As prosecutors prepare to piece together events surrounding the grand jury's payout, they have attempted to interview several witnesses, including former tabloid editor Dylan Howard and two Trump company employees, the people said. Mr. Howard and Trump Organization representatives Jeffrey McConney and Deborah Tarasoff are yet to testify before the grand jury.
Prosecutors also began contacting Trump campaign officials beginning in 2016, one of the people said. And in a sign that they want to corroborate the testimonies of these witnesses, prosecutors recently subpoenaed phone records and other documents that may shed light on the episode.
A conviction is not certain, in part because a case could depend on proving that Trump and his company falsified records to hide payouts from voters in the days leading up to the 2016 election, a low-level charge that based on a jury trial would be largely unproven. Theory. The case would also be based on testimony from Michael D. Cohen, the former Trump agent who made the payment and whohe himself pleaded guilty to the federal chargesrelated to silence in 2018.
Still, events compound Trump's legal woes as he embarks on a third presidential campaign. A Georgia district attorney could seek to indict him for his efforts to overturn his defeat in the 2020 state election, and he faces an investigation by a special counsel into the removal of confidential White House documents, as well as his actions during the attack on the Capitol. on January 6, 2021.
Bragg's decision to form a grand jury focused on bribery and advancing the longest-running criminal investigation into Trump represents a dramatic escalation in an investigation that previously appeared to have reached an impasse.
Under Bragg's predecessor, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., prosecutors began bringing evidence to a previous grand jury in a case focused on Trump's business practices, including whether he grossly and fraudulently inflated the value of his assets in order to make them cheap to achieve benefits. Loans and other benefits. However, in the first few weeks of his tenure last year, Bragg expressed concern about the gravity of this case and decided to abandon the grand jury presentation, prompting the resignations of the two lead prosecutors handling the case.
One of them, Mark F. Pomerantz, has sharply criticized Bragg's decision and has written a book to be published next week, The People Against Donald Trump, detailing his version of the investigation. Bragg's office recently wrote to Pomerantz publishers Simon & Schuster, raising concerns that the book could reveal grand jury information or interfere with the investigation.
While he declined to charge Trump with asset valuations, this is a different case and Bragg is a bolder prosecutor now. He's stepped up investigations into the secret money in the weeks since his prosecutors convicted Trump's firm in an unrelated tax case, a far cry from his troubled days in office when Bragg wasunder attack from all sidesfor revealing a number of policiesdesigned to put fewer people behind bars.
Trump, for his part, has denied any wrongdoing and blamed the election on a partisan witch hunt against him. He also denied having an affair with Mrs. Daniels. If Trump is finally convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of four years, although prison was not mandatory.
“This is just the Manhattan District Attorney's latest act. in their endless, politically motivated witch hunts," the Trump Organization said in a statement, adding that resurrecting the case under what it called "dubious legal theory" was "simply reprehensible and vengeful."
A spokeswoman for Bragg's office declined to comment. Pecker's attorney, Elkan Abramowitz, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. An attorney for McConney and Tarasoff declined to comment.
Evidence from the panel hearing is likely known as a special grand jury. Like normal grand juries, it consists of 23 randomly selected Manhattanites. But its members are sworn in for six months to hear complex cases, rather than 30 days as is the case with panels that review evidence and vote on whether to prosecute on routine matters.
The investigation, which has been evolving in spasms for more than four years, began with an investigation into the bribery business before expanding to include an assessment of Trump's property. Last summer, prosecutors hid money from Mr. Bragg again,try to start the investigationafter the departure of Mr. Pomerantz and Carey R. Dunne, the other lead prosecutor in the investigation.
Prosecutors, in cooperation with New York Attorney General Letitia James, continue to investigate how the former president valued his fortune, people familiar with the matter said.
In the investigation into Mr. Trump, the bribe payment has been discussed in prosecutors with such regularity that prosecutors have dubbed it the "zombie theory," an idea that just won't die.
The first visible sign of progress for Mr. Bragg came this month whenMr. Cohen appeared in the district attorney's office.Meetings with prosecutors for the first time in over a year. He is expected to return for at least one additional interview in February, one of the people said.
The attorney representing Mrs. Daniels in the secret deal, Keith Davidson, is also expected to meet with prosecutors.
Trump's firm was instrumental in the settlement, court filings in Cohen's federal case show.
Although McConney and Tarasoff weren't co-stars, they helped Cohen repay the $130,000 he paid Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.
Allen H. Weisselberg, the company's former CFO, also participated in Cohen's reimbursement. And according to Cohen, Weisselberg was involved in a dispute with Trump over Daniels' pay.
Weisselberg is serving time in jail after pleading guilty to a tax fraud scheme unrelated to the bribery business, a case that also led to the Trump Organization's conviction in December. Although he was the prosecution's key witness in this case, Weisselberg has never implicated Trump in any wrongdoing.
Without their cooperation, prosecutors might find it difficult to directly link Trump to wrongdoing.
In 2018, when Cohen pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance charges related to his role in bribery payments, he pointed the finger at Trump and said the payment was made "in coordination with and at the direction" of the president. Federal prosecutors agreed that Trump was behind the deal but never charged him or his company with any wrongdoing.
There is some circumstantial evidence to suggest Trump was involved: He and Cohen were on the phone twice a day before Cohen sent the payment to Daniel's attorney, according to federal case files.
For prosecutors, the crux of the matter in every possible case is how Trump reimbursed Cohen for the $130,000 he paid Daniels and how the company recorded that payment. According to court documents in Cohen's federal case, Trump's law firm misidentified the reimbursements as legal expenses.
Prosecutors now seem focused on misclassifying the payments to Cohen as legal fees, in violation of a New York law prohibiting the forgery of business records.
Violations of this law can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor. To make it a crime, prosecutors would have to prove Trump falsified records to commit or cover up a second crime; in this case, a violation of a New York state election law, according to a person familiar with the matter. This second aspect has not been proven and therefore it would be a risky trial against any accused, let alone the former President.
Defense attorneys can also argue that Trump, who was a first-time presidential candidate, was unaware that the payments violated voting rights. And they could target Cohen, arguing that he is a convicted felon who has anti-Trump interests.
In its statement, the Trump Organization noted that "Federal prosecutors that Mr. Cohen concluded that he had engaged in a "cheating pattern."
However, Pecker's testimony could bolster prosecutors' claims that Trump was involved in planning the hush pay. The editor, a longtime Trump ally, agreed to investigate potentially damaging stories about Trump during the 2016 campaign and agreed to do so at a meeting at Trump's office.
In October 2016, Daniels' agent and attorney discussed selling the exclusive rights to his story to The National Enquirer, which would never publish it, a practice known as "take and kill."
But Mr. Pecker turned down the deal. He and tabloid editor Howard agreed that Cohen would have to deal directly with Daniels' team.
as Mr. Cohen late payment, Mr. Howard urged him to complete the deal, thus preventing Mrs. Daniels from disclosing her discussions about suppressing his story. "We have to coordinate something," Howard wrote to Cohen in late October 2016, "or it could look horribly wrong for everyone."
Two days later, Cohen wired the $130,000 into an account held by Daniel's attorney.
Michael Rothfeld contributed reports.
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