Among the many investigations of former President Donald Trump currently underway, new or old investigations are gaining unexpected momentum.
This week, the New York District Attorney’s Office began presenting evidence to a grand jury about whether Trump broke the law in connection with paying Stormy Daniels a $130,000 hush-money, The New York Times reports. are reporting.
You might be thinking, “Stormie Daniels…that’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time.” That’s right.
The world first learned about Daniels in 2018, when The Wall Street Journal broke news that Trump Organization lawyer Michael Cohen had arranged a payment just before the 2016 election. relationship with Trump. Already under scrutiny by investigators, Cohen in August 2018 indicted documents famously identifying Trump as an “Individual-1” and violating federal campaign finance laws, including payments for them. finally pleaded guilty to the crime.
There was also much speculation about whether Trump violated campaign finance laws, as Cohen claimed he made illegal payments at Trump’s direction.
But instead, the case failed. The federal investigation ended in 2019, and the New York District Attorney’s Office looked into it, but seemed to have lost interest in pursuing a broader probe into Trump’s business dealings.
So why are we back in 2023?
Only Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg really knows the answer. But the context is that when Bragg took office early last year, he put the brakes on Trump’s business investigation, with two prosecutors resigning and being heavily criticized.
Amid this backlash and the growing legal crisis against Trump in the federal government and in Georgia, Bragg appears to have reconsidered his earlier hesitation. ‘, which pursues prosecution based on hush money.
However, it is not clear if these possible accusations, if filed, would prove strong enough to survive courtroom scrutiny.
Long time no see. What was the hush money scandal again?
OCTOBER 2016 — Weeks before the presidential election, Trump was publicly besieged by a series of accusations of sexual harassment and assault from various women — adult film actress Stormy Daniels said she was consensual. She was preparing to release her own story about a sexual encounter.
Early in the campaign, Cohen worked with National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media, to “catch and kill” unflattering stories about Trump. Publish those stories. AMI executives also participated in discussions about the payment to Daniels, but they were ultimately silenced.
Cohen set up a dummy company, Essential Consultants, and transferred $130,000 to Daniels’ attorneys on October 27.
The issue, later alleged by federal prosecutors for the Southern District of New York, was that this violated campaign finance laws. They argued that because the money was used to help Trump win the election, it should be disclosed as campaign spending and is subject to legal restrictions on donations. As part of a plea bargain, he pleaded guilty to this charge, so the case was never tried before a jury.
However, the prosecutor’s theory was not widely accepted. The New York Times described it as “a somewhat novel use of campaign finance law,” and Attorney General Bill Barr sharply questioned it after taking office. The case was closed because Trump was the sitting president and Justice Department policy prevented him from prosecuting, he said.
But as Trump was about to resign in 2021, SDNY prosecutors reviewed the case and discussed whether the case should be reopened when he loses presidential immunity. According to a recent book by CNN legal analyst Elie Honig: untouchable, The prosecutors were divided on the strength of the case.
“Some believed the evidence was more than enough to indict in a normal case, while others thought that prosecution was possible but still at stake,” Honig wrote. . In the majority view, it was not a slam dunk incident. ”
Some on the team believed the hush-price system was “serious, but not the end of the world,” and compared it to Joe Biden’s subsequent act of trying to reverse his election victory. It seemed “somehow trivial and outdated,” he added.
So how did this move to the Manhattan District Attorney?
After news broke that SDNY had dropped the hush-money lawsuit in 2019, then-Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance picked it up and took Cohen for an interview asking for Trump’s tax returns. rice field.
However, the investigation soon spread outward.
First, there was the case of real estate valuation. Vance’s prosecutors have developed a theory, supported by public evidence and Cohen’s testimony, that Trump overvalued certain assets when he sought loans and insurance policies, but undervalued those assets for tax purposes. They investigated charges of tax evasion, bank fraud, and insurance fraud.
But the problem was to prove that Trump knew his company was breaking the law. So the prosecution set its sights on its CFO, Allen Weisselberg, and spent months pressuring him to betray Trump. . Weisselberg did not.
Next is the issue of welfare. In July 2021, Vance’s office indicted Weisselberg and several Trump entities for tax evasion. The company paid tax-free for renting an apartment and car in Weisselberg, as well as for his grandchildren’s private school tuition. Trump himself was not indicted, and the maximum penalties for Trump’s company were relatively small, so this was a less threatening case.
With that trial pending, Vance left office and newly elected district attorney Bragg took over the Trump investigation in early 2022. According to him in The New York Times, Bragg told two lead prosecutors that he had doubts about proceeding with the case, and suspended grand jury activity. His two chief prosecutors resigned in February, and one of them, Mark Pomerantz, is due out next week with a book explaining what happened.
Bragg, who was elected as a criminal justice reformer, has since faced fierce criticism from the media and Democrats for being too lenient with Trump. Meanwhile, the benefits case is still going to trial, and in August Weisselberg agreed to change his plea to guilty (although he still betrayed Trump). Trump’s business was subsequently convicted in court and sentenced to pay a $1.6 million fine.
And at some point last year, Bragg’s office was back where the Manhattan Attorney’s Office investigation all began: hush money. I brought Cohen.
We don’t know exactly why they went back to hush money, nor do we know how strong the case is. is not relevant here.
But according to New York Times reporters William Rashbaum, Ben Protes, Jonah Bromwich and Fulby Meko, prosecutors have theories about how to charge it. When he repaid Cohen for the fee, he classified it as attorney fees. Prosecutors want to argue that it amounts to unlawful falsification of business records.
But they want to argue that this was done in violation of New York state election law, as it was only a misdemeanor and hardly worth prosecuting. “That second aspect has been largely untested, making it a dangerous case against the defendant, let alone the former president,” wrote a Times reporter.
This seems to suggest that hush-money lawsuits may be a bit within reach. “Zombie” legal theory is making a comeback, as Bragg appears to have realized he could gain more politically from being seen as trying to overthrow Trump. Without knowing more about his evidence and legal basis, we can’t say for sure.
For now, it could simply add to the pile of other legal troubles Trump has, and there’s still no end in sight.
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