Marking a first in American history, a grand jury on Thursday indicted former President Donald Trump under sealed proceedings in New York.
The exact charges have not been revealed.
However, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has been investigating an alleged $130,000 payment made by Trump's former attorney, Michael Cohen, to the porn star Stormy Daniels in the days leading up to the 2016 election. Cohen, who is serving as a witness for the prosecution, has alleged that Trump instructed him to pay Daniels to keep her silent, and that the Trump Organization reimbursed Cohen under the concealment of a "legal expense."
Trump has denied the affair and says the indictment is "Political Persecution and Election Interference at the highest level in history." However, he will now face lengthy criminal proceedings in New York state, with more specifics released at his eventual arraignment.
"To bring a case against a former president for the first time in history, you can be sure that [Alvin Bragg] believes he has an overwhelmingly strong case," said Barry Covert, a Buffalo-based criminal defense attorney with three decades of experience practicing law in New York state. "Whether that's true or not will be greatly challenged at trial. Mr. Trump has the presumption of innocence and the case must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt."
Covert said Trump may be charged, at minimum, with a misdemeanor of "filing a false business instrument."
For a felony, prosecutors would need to prove that Trump falsified those business records to cover up a federal campaign finance violation in connection to Cohen's alleged payment to Daniels before the 2016 election.
"We can expect under New York procedures, that this will take months, if not years, to go through the discovery and motion process," Covert said. "And then, eventually, if the case is not resolved or dismissed or pleaded, we would see a trial."
In other words, the criminal case in New York -- as well as separate inquiries in Georgia and by the U.S. Department of Justice -- may unfold in the middle of the 2024 Republican presidential primary season.
Trump remains a front-runner in that race.
"We have political variables, and we have legal variables, going on at the same time," said David Schultz, who teaches political science at Hamline University and law at the University of Minnesota. "This has never happened. We've never had a sitting president or former president ever indicted for a crime in American history."
For that reason, it's nearly impossible to predict how Trump's indictment in New York will impact the Republican presidential primary.
"It plays out in lots of different ways. Clearly, it could galvanize some of his supporters who say this is just political retribution," Schultz said. "It's also possible that what it does, is pushes away some of the Republicans who were saying, 'I'm not sure about that.' That's what we don't know."
There is no law that precludes a candidate from running for president after an indictment or a conviction.
However, that's never happened in a major political party. The only real precedent is from the 1920 presidential election, in which Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs won three percent of the vote while serving a prison sentence.
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