Trump criminally charged in NY, a first for a US ex-president

Former US president Donald Trump speaks during a 2024 election campaign rally in Waco, Texas, March 25, 2023. (PHOTO / AFP)

NEW YORK – Donald Trump has been indicted by a Manhattan grand jury after a probe into hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels, becoming the first former US president to face criminal charges even as he makes another run for the White House.

The charges, arising from an investigation led by Democratic Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, came as Trump seeks the Republican nomination to run again in 2024. He indicated in a statement on Thursday that he intended to remain in the race.

Trump said in the statement that he was "completely innocent."

Former US president Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen has said he coordinated with Trump on the payments to Daniels and to a second woman, former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who also said she had a sexual relationship with him

"This is Political Persecution and Election Interference at the highest level in history," he said, providing no evidence.

Shortly after, Trump appealed to supporters to provide money for a legal defense. He has raised over $2 million, according to his campaign, since he incorrectly predicted on March 18 that he would be arrested four days later.

The specific charges are not yet known and the indictment will likely be unsealed by a judge in the coming days. Trump will have to travel to Manhattan for fingerprinting and other processing at that point.

Bragg's office said it had contacted Trump's attorney to coordinate a surrender. A person familiar with the matter said it seemed likely that would happen early next week.

Trump's lawyers Susan Necheles and Joseph Tacopina said they will "vigorously fight" the charges.

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The Manhattan investigation is one of several legal challenges facing Trump. The charges could hurt his presidential comeback attempt, as the mug shot from his arraignment and any visuals from his courtroom appearances could provide fodder for rivals.

Some 44 percent of Republicans said he should drop out of the race if he is indicted, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week.

Trump's allies and fellow Republicans blasted the indictment as politically motivated, while Democrats said he is not immune from the rule of law.

The White House declined to comment.

Outside the courthouse, several protesters silently held signs criticizing Trump. Authorities bolstered security around the courthouse after Trump called for nationwide protests on March 18, recalling his charged rhetoric ahead of the Jan 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.

Hush money

Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, has said she received money in exchange for keeping silent about a sexual encounter she had with Trump in 2006.

The former president's personal lawyer Michael Cohen has said he coordinated with Trump on the payments to Daniels and to a second woman, former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who also said she had a sexual relationship with him. Trump has denied having affairs with either woman.

"No one is above the law," Daniels' lawyer Clark Brewster said on Twitter.

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Cohen pleaded guilty to a campaign-finance violation in 2018 and served more than a year in prison. Federal prosecutors said he acted at Trump's direction.

Cohen said he stood by his testimony and the evidence he provided to prosecutors. "Accountability matters," he said in a statement.

No former or sitting US president has ever faced criminal charges.

A NYPD police patrol car sits outside Trump Tower in New York City on March 27, 2023. (PHOTO / AFP)

Bragg's office last year won the criminal conviction of the businessman-turned-politician's real estate company for tax fraud.

Trump also faces two criminal investigations by a special counsel appointed by US Attorney General Merrick Garland and one by a local prosecutor in Georgia.

Trump has escaped legal peril numerous times. In the White House, he weathered two attempts by Congress to remove him from office, including for the Jan 6, assault on the US Capitol by his supporters, as well as a years-long probe into his campaign's contacts with Russia in 2016.

In last year's tax-fraud case, Bragg targeted Trump's business but declined to charge Trump himself with financial crimes, prompting two prosecutors who worked on the probe to resign.

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Trump in 2018 initially disputed knowing anything about the payment to Daniels. He later acknowledged reimbursing Cohen for the payment, which he called a "simple private transaction."

Cohen testified before the Manhattan grand jury, as did David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer. The tabloid publication bought the rights to McDougal's story about her alleged relationship with Trump for $150,000 but never published it, a method known as "catch and kill" used to bury damaging information about a third party.

Trump leads his early rivals for his party's nomination, holding the support of 44 percent of Republicans in a March Reuters/Ipsos poll, compared with 30 percent support for his nearest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has yet to announce his candidacy. President Joe Biden is expected to seek re-election.