Donald Trump to face ‘hush money’ criminal trial: What’s it all about?

New York Supreme Court has ruled case over alleged payments to adult movie star and former Playboy model will proceed.

Donald Trump
Former President Donald Trump leaves Trump Tower in New York on Thursday. Trump is expected in court for a hearing in his hush-money criminal case [Bryan Woolston/AP]

The New York County Supreme Court has dismissed Donald Trump’s attempt to have a criminal case accusing him of paying hush money to an adult movie star and a former Playboy model thrown out. The criminal case, which was filed by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg in March last year and which alleges that he falsified business records to cover up the payments, will now go ahead as planned on March 25. Trump has denied any wrongdoing.

Judge Juan Manuel Merchan has already been coordinating with defence lawyers and Manhattan prosecutors to oversee jury selection for what will be the first trial of a former US president in history.

What is this case about? 

Prosecutors say the Trump Organization paid “hush money” to prevent embarrassing stories about Trump’s personal life from surfacing during the 2016 presidential election.

Trump is facing 34 felony counts (criminal charges) relating to payments made to adult film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal during his 2016 presidential campaign.

The 34 felony charges include the following:

  • 11 counts relating to cheques for payments to Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer at the time
  • 11 counts relating to monthly payments for Cohen’s services and expenses
  • 12 counts relating to falsification of business records

The case centres on payments made to the two women and a Trump Tower doorman who is believed to have possessed information about Trump allegedly fathering a child outside of his marriage.

Prosecutors allege that Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, paid Daniels $130,000 to stop her from speaking to the US tabloid paper, the National Enquirer. They also allege that the Trump campaign paid $150,000 to McDougal to prevent her from selling her story to the National Enquirer.

Such a move, known as “catch-and-kill”, is used to bury stories that may be damaging to a person’s public profile. It would have allowed the Trump campaign to secure the rights to McDougal’s story regarding an alleged affair with Trump.

At the time, the National Enquirer, which had agreed to buy the story from McDougal, admitted to intentionally burying the story until after the 2020 election.

According to prosecutors, the Trump Organization paid Cohen a sum significantly exceeding his original expenses and services as legal counsel. In 2018, Cohen stated that he received a total of $420,000 over several months. The Trump Organization recorded these payments as legal expenses.

Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen at the New York Supreme Court on October 25, 2023 [Seth Wenig/AP]

What happens if Trump is convicted? 

In New York, charges of falsifying business records amount to a “class E felony”, which is punishable by up to four years in prison. Because presidential pardons only apply to federal crimes – this is a state case – Trump cannot pardon himself even if he becomes president again. Trump is leading the Republican Party’s nomination race for the 2024 election, and is ahead of incumbent President Joe Biden in key battleground states in several recent polls.

To obtain a conviction, prosecutors will need to prove not only that he falsified – or caused false entries to be entered in – business records, which constitutes a misdemeanour, but also that he did so with the intention of concealing another crime.

However, New York records indicate that individuals convicted of falsifying business records rarely receive prison sentences solely for that offence.

Even if Trump is convicted, he could still run for the presidency this year. The requirements for serving as president of the United States are straightforward: A candidate must be at least 35 years of age, must be a natural-born citizen of the US and must have been resident in the country for at least 14 years.

The constitution does not address whether a person can be prevented from serving as president if they have a criminal record or have spent time in prison.

If Trump is not convicted in this specific case, the entire affair could help bolster his support among his MAGA (Make America Great Again) base, who view it as part of a partisan witch-hunt against him.

What other criminal charges is Trump facing? 

Trump is the first former US president to face criminal charges. He has been indicted in four other cases – both civil and criminal – the hush-money case being the fifth.

  • Civil fraud case: Trump is being sued for fraud by New York Attorney General Letitia James under a New York statute known as Executive Law 63(12). The case argues that Trump and other defendants employed “deceptive and inappropriate” techniques to artificially inflate the values of Trump’s properties on paper.
  • Georgia election case: Trump and 18 others were charged by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis with illegally trying to overturn his loss to Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election in Georgia.
  • Federal election case: Department of Justice special counsel Jack Smith charged Trump in Columbia US District Court in August 2023 with conspiring to overturn the results of his election loss to President Biden.
  • Classified documents case: Trump was charged by special counsel Jack Smith in June 2023 in the Southern District Court of Florida for unlawfully retaining classified documents he took from the White House to Mar-a-Lago after departing from office in January 2021.

Trump has denied any wrongdoing in all cases.

Source: Al Jazeera