How strong is the New York case against Donald Trump?

Trump has become first US president indicted and charged with a crime, but many questions remain in complex case.

Days of flurrying speculation gave way on Tuesday to the official reveal of the 34 felony charges against former US President and 2024 Republican hopeful Donald Trump.

In an arraignment in Manhattan’s criminal court that was watched the world over, in an unsealed indictment and statement of facts, and in a news conference by New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg, the clearest picture yet of the case against Trump has emerged.

But the new details also raised several questions, leaving some legal experts divided on the strength of the case based on what is currently known.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, former federal prosecutor Alan Baron said, based on what is known, it appears to be a “very strong case” against Trump.

“People who are very familiar with this kind of prosecution in New York are saying that it’s very solid,” he said.

John Malcolm, a former federal prosecutor and legal expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank said the former president could prevail. “You never want to give short shrift to 34 felony counts, particularly if you’re sitting at the defence table, but [Trump] has strong defences he can assert to these charges.”

For his part, District Attorney Bragg has maintained the strength of the case, and the investigation behind it, despite the probe appearing to run dry at various points since it was first launched by his predecessor, Cy Vance Jr.

“I’ve been doing this for 24 years and I’m no stranger to rigorous complex investigations,” Bragg said at a news conference on Tuesday. “Having now conducted a rigorous, thorough investigation, the case was ready to be brought and it was brought.”

What do we know about the charges?

The indictment – the official document laying out the charges against Trump – was unsealed following the former president’s first court appearance on Tuesday. It charged Trump with 34 counts of “falsifying business records in the first degree”, a class E felony, the lowest grade in the highest category of charge in the New York penal system.

While typically a misdemeanour under New York state law, falsifying business records rises to a felony if it is done with “intent to defraud and intent to commit another crime and aid and conceal the commission thereof”.

Former President Donald Trump arrives at court, Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in New York. Trump is set to appear in a New York City courtroom on charges related to falsifying business records in a hush money investigation, the first president ever to be charged with a crime. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Former President Donald Trump arrives at court to face charges related to falsifying business records in a hush money investigation, the first president ever to be charged with a crime [Mary Altaffer/The Associated Press]

All the charges laid out in the indictment are specifically connected to payments made to adult film star Stormy Daniels by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen in exchange for her silence over an alleged affair with Trump a decade earlier.

The charges are focused on how reimbursements to Cohen paid by then-President Trump were classified – or misclassified – in official business documents. They focus on either cheques given to Cohen throughout 2017, monthly invoices submitted by Cohen, or entries in the ledger for Trump’s trust.

What questions do the charges raise?

The main question the charges raise is what alleged secondary crime the falsification of business records were done in service to – either in committing or hiding. Here is where the so-called “statement of facts”, a legal document filed by prosecutors that lays out supporting details of the prosecutor’s case – as well as statements from Bragg, come into play.

To date, Trump has not been charged with any other crimes, but in the statement of facts, prosecutors alleged Trump “violated election laws” and falsified records as part “of a scheme with others to influence the 2016 presidential election by identifying and purchasing negative information about him to suppress its publication and benefit [Trump’s] electoral prospects”. Prosecutors described that scheme as a “catch and kill” operation.

During his news conference on Tuesday, Bragg further said the election laws in question included a “New York State election law, which makes it a crime to conspire to promote a candidacy by unlawful means”, as well as exceeding the “federal campaign contribution cap”.

Bragg said also Trump mischaracterised the payments to Cohen for “tax purposes”, without providing further details.

It has remained unclear if prosecutors would predominantly focus on any single alleged secondary crime as they argue the case in front of a jury.

Prosecutors also detailed two other hush-money payments as part of the alleged “scheme”, one to a former doorman at Trump Tower who claimed to have details of the former president fathering a child out of wedlock, the second to former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who also alleged having an affair with Trump.

While no charges are specifically connected to the other two payments, prosecutors said they show the payment to Daniels was not isolated, but part of a wider effort by Trump and his allies to influence the election outcome.

How strong is the case?

Legal analysts have been quick to note that New York state indictments tend to offer fewer details than in other jurisdictions, with Bragg saying on Tuesday that the charging document does not include more information about Trump’s alleged election law violations – or other secondary crimes in question – because “the law does not so require.”

Bragg further stressed that New York prosecutors only need to show the falsification of business records was done with intent to either commit or hide another crime. They are not required to prosecute that secondary crime.

Drawing depicting Trump's court appearance
A courtroom sketch of Donald Trump on April 4 [Jane Rosenberg/Reuters]

Still, the Heritage Foundation’s Malcolm noted Trump was already under scrutiny for federal campaign finance violations related to the payment to Daniels, for which Cohen was subsequently convicted. Federal prosecutors did not bring charges against Trump at the time, which he said could weaken Bragg’s case if it relies predominantly on those alleged violations.

“It strikes me as a district attorney who is trying to shoehorn a federal violation – which was investigated by federal authorities who took a pass on it –  into a state indictment to ramp up what are our relatively minor misdemeanour offences into felonies,” Malcolm said.

He also noted the charges against Trump hinged specifically on the Daniels payment, despite the two other hush-money payments detailed by prosecutors, meaning the 34 charges will likely “rise and fall together” on the Trump legal team’s ability to cast doubt on the former president’s knowledge surrounding the details of that individual payment.

‘Nothing novel or weak’

Writing in a New York Times op-ed, Karen Friedman Agnifilo, a former Manhattan chief assistant district attorney, and Norman Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, pushed back on claims the case has been built on shaky ground.

“With the release of the indictment and accompanying statement of facts, we can now say that there’s nothing novel or weak about this case,” they wrote on Wednesday, noting that “the creation of phony documentation to cover up campaign finance violations has been repeatedly prosecuted in New York.”

While previous felony charges for falsifying records in New York have related to violations of state finance laws, they wrote, “court after court across the country has recognised that state authorities can enforce state law in cases relating to federal candidates.”

“Some of the examples involve criminal enforcement by state authorities, some civil, but the point is the same: [State prosecutors] can act,” they wrote.

Meanwhile, former prosecutor Baron added that the so-far vague statements from prosecutors on some pieces of evidence do not necessarily reflect the case’s frailty.

“I think what people are complaining about is ‘you’re not telling us what the whole case is going to be,'” he said. “Well [the indictment] is not intended to do that. It’s simply to put the defendant on notice of what he’s being charged with.”

“The proof of the pudding will be when you go to trial – does your evidence hold up then?” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera