On April 4, Americans lived through a new experience: a former president of the United States officially charged with a criminal offence. Donald Trump has achieved many firsts across his media and subsequent political career – but it’s unlikely this was a first he was aiming for.
Not that you could tell from his demeanour. Although news reports from journalists in the courtroom noted he appeared “sombre”, on his own turf Trump pulled few punches. On his social media platform TruthSocial, shortly before he left Trump Tower to head to the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse, Trump blasted the judge in charge of the hearing, Justice Juan Merchan, as “highly partisan” and whose family are “well-known Trump haters”. He repeated these accusations during his speech from his Mar-A-Lago home in Florida a few hours later.
Denying he did anything illegal, Trump also repeated now-familiar claims that his prosecution is politically motivated, asserting that this process is an “insult” to the US. He claimed: “The only crime I have committed is to fearlessly defend our nation from those who seek to destroy it.”
The official reading of the charges against Trump in court revealed few surprises. In effect, he has been charged with falsifying business records. The charges allege that having reimbursed his lawyer for payments to two women (unnamed, but widely believed to be former adult film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy Bunny Karen McDougal) to ensure their silence about allegations of extra-marital relations, Trump then claimed those payments as legal expenses in his accounts.
The payments themselves were not illegal, but recording them as something else in the business records is. Trump is charged with 34 counts, each relating to a particular instance of financial accounting for these payments.
Perhaps the most surprising element after days of speculation was that Trump was charged with felonies – the more serious level of crime – rather than the lower-level misdemeanours that had been expected. The argument here is that the falsification of business records occurred to cover up another crime.
The district attorney bringing the case, Alvin L. Bragg, appeared to keep options open regarding exactly what that other crime might be. Violations of state and federal election laws are one possible claim, but may be difficult to prove. A second possible avenue appears to be that these financial records were intended to mislead state tax authorities. Bragg may well seek to establish both at trial, giving a jury options for conviction.
The charges may seem relatively insignificant for anyone expecting something in keeping with Trump’s larger-than-life personality and the vehemence of his criticisms of those involved in the process. And he certainly faces other, more serious legal investigations around both his role in the January 6 2021 riots on Capitol Hill and potential election tampering regarding the closely fought Georgia election. Both could lead to future criminal charges.
But, as Bragg noted in his post-hearing statements, prosecuting business crime is a large part of what the New York district attorney’s office does – and white-collar crime is still criminal behaviour. Each felony count carries a maximum sentence of four years, meaning if convicted on all counts, Trump could face up to 136 years of prison time, although it is more likely that he would face a hefty fine.
Little moves quickly in the US justice system. The next step is for the prosecution to file what is known as “discovery”, or the evidence they will use at trial. This will be followed by a similar filing by Trump’s defence team. According to New York law, these must be filed by May 9 and June 8 respectively.
The defence then has until August 8 to raise any claims or queries. This might include a motion to dismiss the case entirely, if they feel there is insufficient evidence on which to proceed. The prosecution has the option to respond and Judge Merchan will have until early December to rule.
While the Trump team’s motions might well garner attention, the most significant date is December when both sides – and the rest of the country – will find out whether the case will go to trial or not. The timing is significant as it comes just before the first voting in the primary elections for the 2024 presidential campaign.
If the case is discharged, it may prove to be a major boost to his chances of electoral success. Alternatively, the spectacle of a presidential candidate fighting to prove his innocence in a criminal case while simultaneously campaigning for the nation’s highest office is hardly likely to undermine the outsider’s perception of a broken American political system.
What of Trump’s presidential bid?
Trump’s indictment and official charging have brought him national media attention at a level he hasn’t really received since he left office in January 2021. But the presidential election is 18 months away and a lot can happen between now and then.
Recent events have invigorated Trump’s base, but we already knew that there are a core group of voters who continue to support Trump and believe he was unfairly denied the election in 2020. And, despite claims of a boost in the polls, poll-tracking website FiveThirtyEight indicates that Trump’s approval ratings are around 39% – not a low for him, but not an historic high either (Joe Biden’s approval ratings stand not much higher at 43%).
Trump’s ability to win in 2024 will depend on his ability to secure the votes not only of his base but of moderate Republicans and centrist swing voters, many of whom were convinced in 2016 that Trump represented the change the nation needed. Four years later, those voters reversed course and chose the moderate, non-confrontational Biden instead.
After the tumult of the pandemic and massive inflation, the nation’s appetite for a return of the political disruptor remains in doubt, irrespective of the status of his legal troubles. All we can be sure about is that Trump will not back down and will continue his campaign for the office he believes he deserves – which means we’ll all be hearing more from and about him in the coming months.
Emma Long does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.