Trump has been indicted on criminal charges. What happens next?

The charges against a former president are unprecedented. What does it mean for 2024, and beyond? John Bowden writes

Wednesday 05 April 2023 17:12 BST
Donald Trump
Donald Trump (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

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 hush money payments to suppress negative information about the former president in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election.

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 – accuses Mr Trump of attempting to conceal a wide-ranging scheme to illegally influence the 2016 presidential election.

The “catch and kill” scheme allegedly involved Mr Trump and his then-attorney Michael Cohen making hush money payments during the 2016 race to suppress negative information about him by silencing individuals over his alleged affairs.

Three specific alleged affairs and hush money payments were mentioned in the charging documents – a $130,000 payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels, a $150,000 to former playboy model Karen McDougal and a $30,000 payment to a doorman at Trump Tower who claimed he had information that Mr Trump had fathered a child with a woman while married to Melania Trump.

Mr Trump “repeatedly and fraudulently falsified New York business records to conceal criminal conduct that hid damaging information from the voting public during the 2016 presidential election,” the charging documents read.

Each of the 34 criminal charges relates to an individual entry in the Trump Organization’s business records.

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?

The public spectacle

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 next court dates

During Mr Trump’s initial court appearance on Tuesday 4 April, the judge set future court dates for the case.

Prosecutors say they expect to hand over the bulk of discovery within the next 65 days (by 8 June).

Mr Trump’s team hsa until 8 August to file any motions in the case, with prosecutor’s needing to respond by 18 September.

The former president’s lawyers vowed to file motions to dismiss the case even before the charging documents were unsealed and they plan to fight the charges.

The next in-person court hearing has been set for 4 December.

How will this impact Trump’s campaign?

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.

How will his GOP opponents respond?

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.

How will this affect the general election?

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.

And don’t forget independents: Barring a major downturn of the economy between now and the 2024 election, independent voters will have an interesting choice before them.

Do they stick with Joe Biden, the aging but seemingly unchaotic president who has overseen America’s economic recovery from Covid-19 while remaining out of the headlines most days, a relief for many Americans after four years of a reality TV show administration? Or do they hand the reins back to Donald Trump, a man whose track record is clear but now returns to national politics embittered by his 2020 defeat and, by all accounts, swearing bloody revenge against Mr Biden and his rivals in the national GOP who he sees as disloyal?

One thing can be predicted: An indictment in the Stormy Daniels case would only serve as a reminder in the minds of America’s undecideds that electing Mr Trump means accepting the baggage that comes with him, an all too serious prospect to consider given the other criminal investigation the US Justice Department continues to pursue into January 6 and the former president’s efffort to overturn the 2020 election.

While there’s little guarantee that Mr Trump would ever go to trial, let alone be convicted or face a meaningful punishment, the political weight of the case itself is far more real. In the end, that could be the real consequence of Mr Trump’s actions: A seemingly uncarryable burden that could pull Mr Trump’s aspirations back down to reality at a time when he is at his most vulnerable and could be facing his first real challenge for control of his party in a half decade.

This story was updated on Tuesday 4 April 2023 to reflect the details of the charges against Mr Trump.

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