Former President Donald Trump was arrested and arraigned on 34 felony counts in New York on Tuesday. He pleaded not guilty to all of them before flying home and complaining in a campaign-style rally about the quartet of criminal cases he potentially faces. No president had ever been charged with a crime before Tuesday.
Trump is not being charged over just "one payment" to buy the silence of porn actress Stormy Daniels right before the 2016 election, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said at a press conference after the indictment was unsealed. "These are felony crimes in New York state, no matter who you are. We cannot and will not normalize serious criminal conduct." Besides, the charges against Trump, falsification of business records "with intent to defraud and intent to commit another crime," are "the bread and butter of our white-collar work," he said.
Trump's lawyers, predictably, disagreed with Bragg about the merits of the case, noting the indictment is vague on some important points. "What really wasn't expected is that they were going to hand down an indictment without specifying what these alleged underlying crimes were," lawyer Joe Tacopina said on Fox News. "It's shocking to me that a state prosecutor would try and prosecute something as thin as this."
Trump isn't expected back in the Manhattan court until December. But based on what we know so far, how strong is Bragg's historic case against Trump?
What are the commentators saying?
With the indictment unsealed, "we can now say that there's nothing novel or weak about this case," Karen Friedman Agnifilo, a former Manhattan chief assistant D.A., and Norman Eisen write at The New York Times. The charges filed against Trump, using "phony documentation to cover up campaign finance violations," have "been repeatedly prosecuted in New York," often ending in convictions, they add. "The judge and jury will make the ultimate determination, but they will be far from the first to consider this question, and the answer has usually been a guilty verdict."
The indictment had "few surprises, except perhaps astonishment that Mr. Bragg's case looks even weaker than we expected," The Wall Street Journal writes in an editorial. Bragg "padded the indictment" with 34 counts of the same primary charge, but the big question he "still hasn't adequately answered: Where is the second crime?" Bragg "owes the public a better explanation of his theory of the case. His unclear and evasive reply Tuesday isn't helping his cause," the Journal adds, and given the stakes and unprecedented indictment of a president, we "shouldn't have to wait" until December "to find out the answer."
One of the things that makes this "a solid prosecution case" is that "the specifics are not spelled out," former federal prosecutor Shan Wu argues at The Daily Beast. "While a full narrative would be helpful to public understanding of the case, it also would commit prosecutors to facts which could be attacked publicly, and potentially set up discrepancies with eventual testimony that might raise legal issues both at trial and on appeal." The other strength revealed in the indictment is that the case doesn't rest just on Michael Cohen's testimony and Stormy Daniels' hush money. Bragg sets out a pattern of behavior, and such patterns "make particularly compelling evidence to jurors."
"If Bragg can persuade a Manhattan jury of this plot beyond a reasonable doubt," and the judge doesn't throw out the case on technicalities "he will secure a felony conviction of the ex-president," Mark Joseph Stern writes at Slate. But while the falsified records misdemeanors "should be a slam dunk," hanging the felony charges on "fairly confusing" or "somewhat shaky" legal theories is "an uphill climb" for Bragg — and "not at all the slam-dunk case that so many Democrats wanted."
Bragg actually "paints a compelling picture of a conspiracy to falsify business records in order to suppress negative information during the presidential campaign," and a jury "might well find that a compelling story," UC Berkeley Law School professor Daniel Farber tells the Los Angeles Times. But at this point "we still don't know what the prosecutor has in mind" for connecting the dots. Bragg "has fired a strong opening shot," he said, "but it's only the beginning of the battle."
Prosecutors asked the judge for an expedited trial, though it wouldn't begin until January 2024, but "Trump's team said that was too ambitious and suggested next spring as a more appropriate target," The Washington Post reports. In the meantime, "Trump is not expected to appear in court again until at least December, but his attorneys will file what is likely to be a lengthy set of motions in August, and prosecutors must respond in writing six weeks later."
Bragg's theory of the case involves "thorny issues that likely will have to be resolved by appeals courts over the years," if the case gets that far, UCLA law professor Richard Hasen writes at Slate. "It is said that if you go after the king, you should not miss. In this vein, it is very easy to see this case tossed for legal insufficiency or tied up in the courts well past the 2024 election before it might ever go to trial. It will be a circus that will embolden Trump, especially if he walks."
"Trump is not above the law, and if they can prove the misdemeanors, then by all means they should go after him," Hasen adds. But "I would much rather see Trump prosecuted for concealing classified documents or for interfering with the 2020 election and seeking to disrupt Congress' counting of the Electoral College votes. Those are cases that are on much more solid legal and factual ground."
"Whatever happens next, one thing is clear," Agnifilo and Eisen write at the Times: Trump "is being treated as any other New Yorker would be with similar evidence against him." Critics say Bragg is motivated by politics, but "if anything, the more political choice would have been not to indict when there is so much scrutiny," they add. Whatever the outcome, Bragg had "the backbone to avoid such considerations in charging decisions. Good for him — and for the rule of law."