On 4 April 2023, Donald Trump broke another record no one wanted to break.
He is now the first former US president who faces criminal charges, having been prosecuted for 34 counts of falsifying business records to conceal payment to pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels during his 2016 presidential campaign.
This is not the first time he experienced trouble with the law, as he was impeached twice during his time as president in 2019 and 2021.
After several months of investigation into a payment made to silence the actress from disclosing the alleged affair, prosecutors have indicted The Trump Organisation for falsifying records and violating election laws.
In a widely publicised court appearance in New York, Donald Trump surrendered (because if he didn’t, he would be arrested) and pleaded not guilty, denying the affair. He accused the trial of being politically motivated and aimed at weakening his position in the 2024 US presidential campaigns.
With such a highly publicised proceeding, it’s challenging to keep track of what’s going on. Here are what Donald Trump’s charges, brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, are about:
Hush Money to Stormy Daniels
In 2018, Donald Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to tax evasion and campaign finance violations related to payments made to Stormy Daniels.
The actress has alleged that she had a sexual encounter with Donald Trump in 2006 after meeting him in a celebrity golf tournament.
Michael Cohen admitted to paying US$130,000 (S$173,000) to Stormy Daniels in return for the promise that she will not talk about Donald Trump during his 2016 presidential campaign.
After being sentenced to three years in prison for the charges, Michael Cohen reported that The Trump Organisation reimbursed him for the payment with a monthly fee of over S$46,000 in 2017, the first year Donald Trump was in the White House.
In New York, it is a violation of federal campaign finance law to spend money to benefit a presidential campaign without disclosing it. This is because they deem funds used to conceal negative information in political campaigns as campaign donations.
However, the payment made to Stormy Daniels has surpassed the previous legal limit of US$2,700 for campaign donations. By reimbursing his ex-lawyer for these payments, prosecutors tied Donald Trump to the criminal act, making the falsification of business records a class E felony.
It’s also revealed that he has also allegedly paid hush money to other people, including a doorman who wanted to sell a story about him fathering a child.
Simply put, Trump was accused of a “catch and kill” campaign, whereby he and his team tried to find negative stories about him and bought them off with money that wasn’t declared.
If found guilty of all 34 charges, Donald Trump could face up to 136 years in prison. 76 years old this year, his jail term is set to outlive him if convicted.
No Stranger to Legal Peril
This is not the first time Donald Trump had trouble with the law. Just last year, two units of his family business, The Trump Organisation, were found guilty of engaging in a 13-year tax evasion scheme.
The focus of the charges was on the company’s payment of personal expenses, which included providing top executives with benefits such as free rent and car leases. These expenses went unreported, and if found guilty, the organisation could face a criminal penalty of up to US$1.6 million.
He is also currently being investigated over the US Capitol assault by his supporters in 2021. Congress blamed the violent attack on Donald Trump’s tweets, which often motivated his supporters and incited violence. There are apparently more, which you can read on this Wikipedia page (which comprises both civil and criminal cases).
However, it seems like Donald Trump is not stopping his media play anytime soon. Shortly after his arrest, he appealed to supporters to donate towards his legal defence. He also shared multiple threatening social media posts throughout the indictment of his 34 charges in New York.
More Benefits Than Harm Towards Donald Trump Over Court Case
While cases like this could pose distractions and produce unflattering revelations that no presidential candidate would welcome, this does not apply to Donald Trump, as he is no normal politician.
Well-known as a controversial figure, this legal battle may fuel publicity around him, boosting his public image for all the wrong reasons. Instead of affecting him negatively, the legal scrutiny could feed his preferred narrative of being “unfairly targeted by the Democratic administration”.
Conducted after they announced the indictment last week, a CNN poll found that 52% of Americans believed that politics played a “major role” in his indictment.
After accusing Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, of targeting him for political reasons, Donald Trump’s supporters have also rallied by his side, staging protests around the courthouse since last Monday.
The Next Step
The next hearing has been set on 4 December 2023, with legal experts saying that the trial may not even get underway for a year.
It’s hard to tell how this trial would affect such a controversial candidate as Donald Trump. After all, his indictment will not legally prevent him from running for president, making his 2024 presidential candidacy a sight to see if he ends up convicted for his crimes. However, it should be noted that even if he’s found guilty and jailed, he can still be the 47th POTUS: if he wins the election, that is.
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