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 specific charges are not yet known, as the indictment remains under seal. CNN on Thursday reported Trump faces more than 30 counts related to business fraud.
Trump said he was “completely innocent” and indicated he would not drop out of the 2024 presidential race. He accused Bragg, a Democrat, of trying to hurt his chances of winning re-election against Democratic President Joe Biden.
“This is political persecution and election interference at the highest level in history,” he said in a statement.
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.
Trump, the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination according to polling, received support from a number of his potential challengers on Thursday including Florida Governor Ron Desantis and former Vice President Mike Pence.
“This will only further serve to divide our country,” Pence said.
While the White House did not comment, Democrats said Trump was not immune from the rule of law.
“I encourage both Mr. Trump’s critics and supporters to let the process proceed peacefully and according to the law,” said the top Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer.
The charges 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, which a court official said would likely occur next Tuesday.
Trump’s lawyers Susan Necheles and Joseph Tacopina said they will “vigorously fight” the charges.
The Manhattan investigation is one of several legal challenges facing Trump.
Bragg successfully prosecuted Trump’s business last year on tax-fraud charges, leading to a $1.61 million criminal penalty.
The presiding judge in that case, New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan, is expected to oversee this case as well, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Trump could use the case to stoke anger among his core supporters, though other Republican voters might tire of the drama. Some 44% of Republicans said he should drop out of the race if he is indicted, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week.
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 by his supporters.
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.
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.”
“No one is above the law,” Daniels’ lawyer Clark Brewster said on Twitter.
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.
Aside from this case, Trump faces two criminal investigations by a special counsel appointed by US Attorney General Merrick Garland and another criminal probe 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 trial, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office targeted Trump’s business but declined to charge Trump himself with financial crimes.
In the hush-money case, legal experts say Bragg is expected to argue Trump falsified business records to cover up another crime, such as violating federal campaign-finance law, which makes it a felony. — Reuters