Trump has been indicted on criminal charges. What happens next?
Two years after Donald Trump left office following a bloody attack on the nation’s capital, he has been indicted on criminal charges.
The charges, wholly unrelated to the attack on the seat of Congress which left dozens of police injured and traumatised, stem instead from a 2016 payment his then-attorney made to a porn star who has alleged that she and Mr Trump had an affair.
On 30 March, the Manhattan grand jury voted to indict Mr Trump on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records over the hush money payment – making him the first current or former president to ever face criminal charges in the history of the US.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office – which dove back into the case in 2022, and empaneled a grand jury only as recently as January – now accuses Mr Trump of attempting to conceal a wide-ranging scheme to illegally influence the 2016 presidential election by suppressing negative stories about him.
Mr Trump appeared for his arraignment in Manhattan Criminal Court on the afternoon of Tuesday 4 April, pleading not guilty to all charges.
The former president has long denied an affair with Ms Daniels, but in the months after the payment was reported, he admitted to reimbursing his attorney for the hush payment.
So what happens next in this unprecedented case?
As with any high-profile court case, a potential criminal prosecution of Mr Trump will be slow and marked with constant battles. Expect Mr Trump to fight the indictment every step of the way, with motions to dismiss, allegations of impropriety aimed at Mr Bragg and perhaps even the judge, and a knock-down-drag-out fight over allegations that have been public knowledge for a half decade.
Mr Trump set out from Mar-a-Lago on Monday afternoon, landing at New York City’s La Guardia International Airport just before 4pm. He spent the night at his Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan before travelling to Manhattan Criminal Court on Tuesday for his arraignment at 2.15pm ET on Tuesday.
Though he was spared the ordeal of being paraded in handcuffs and having his mugshots taken, the event was rich in visual drama: Mr Trump flanked by police officers, courtroom artists’ impressions of his moment before the judge, and crowds of opposing protesters in strange masks and costumes clashing outside the courthouse.
That was only the first of potentially many hearings where Mr Trump will actually have to show up at the courthouse, prompting a media spectacle each and every time he appears. Each appearance will be dissected endlessly by cable news networks and picked apart for some clue about the former president’s mood or confidence in beating the charges.
The case could affect Mr Trump himself in two major ways: Time, and money. Mr Trump will need attorneys to defend him in court — real attorneys, instead of the amateur hour spectacle that was his 2020 legal team. Criminal charges are a serious matter for an expensive, high-powered defence attorney, instead of one of the political operatives who defended Mr Trump’s bogus conspiracies in 2020 and willingly suffered serious damage to their respective careers as a result. Expect Mr Trump to be forced to divert a good amount of his various war chest stockpiles to funding this new legal defence effort.
There’s also the issue of time. Don’t expect a judge to be very lenient when it comes to rescheduling court appearances to make room for Mr Trump’s campaign rallies. It isn’t likely that Mr Trump would be blocked from major events, like a GOP primary debate (which typically take place at night anyway), but frequent trips to and from Manhattan will make for a costly and time-consuming experience that could interfere with Mr Trump’s ability to host campaign rallies all around the country at any given moment.
Expect each Republican to handle this a different way. Some, who envision themselves less running for president and more auditioning for a spot in Mr Trump’s Cabinet 2.0 may join in and denounce the charges as illegitimate, the product of a Democratic district attorney weaponising their office to pursue a political enemy.
Others with a real shot of dethroning Mr Trump, most likely Florida’s Ron DeSantis, will likely grab the issue by the horns and attempt to wield it against him like a cudgel. There’s a lot of room for Republicans to mock their former leader when it comes to the Stormy Daniels story; his hiring of Michael Cohen despite his later denouncement of the man as a liar, his ever-shifting explanation of when he learned about the reimbursement, and Rudy Giuliani’s bizarre explanation that Mr Trump “funnelled” money to his former attorney to make the payment.
This will be a tight line for Republicans to tread, as Mr Trump has long woven a narrative of political persecution to which charges filed by any law enforcement body, let alone one controlled by a Democrat, would fit in nicely.
Should Mr Trump make it through a GOP primary without any of his would-be rivals taking him out, there’s still the issue of appealing to a national audience.
The potential charges create a twofold problem for Mr Trump – one in the minds of independent voters, and one in the mind of his own supporters. Mr Trump’s war for political power has always been fought on two fronts: Energising the far-right GOP voting base that sat out past elections but sent him roaring to victory in the 2016 Republican primary, and winning independent voters who find themselves voting on a myriad of issues with the economy often taking on an oversized weight.
Firstly, the issue of charges against Mr Trump could demoralise his most hardcore supporters. We saw that play out in Georgia, in early 2021 after Mr Trump lost the general election in that state and his party proceeded to lose two Senate seats in runoff elections. Trump fans, dissuaded by their leader’s own claims of voter suppression and election fraud, stayed home in greater numbers allowing Democrats to seize clean victories. Should Mr Trump lean too hard into the idea of him being persecuted by the “deep state”, it could have the same effect come November 2024.