Trump’s Manhattan Trial Is About a Lot More Than Hush Money

Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

In April 2023, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg announced that his office had charged Trump with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first degree. The case is historic. It is the first ever prosecution of an American president (current or former), and one of the most important trials of alleged election wrongdoing in American history. My book, Trying Trump: A Guide to His First Election Interference Criminal Trial, is a complete guide to understanding what will happen and why it matters.

As DA Bragg has explained, the Manhattan case charges Trump with “conspiring to corrupt a presidential election and then lying in New York business records to cover it up.” The trial will center on Trump’s alleged efforts to conceal a hush money payment made to Stephanie Clifford, an adult film star also known as Stormy Daniels, for the exclusive rights to her story of a sexual encounter with Trump. As part of an alleged “catch and kill” scheme orchestrated by Trump with his fixer Michael Cohen and David Pecker, the former CEO of American Media, Inc. (AMI), which published supermarket tabloids including the National Enquirer, Cohen paid Daniels $130,000. Trump reimbursed Cohen, and Trump and Cohen allegedly falsified their business records to conceal the true nature of those payments, which the District Attorney’s Office alleges should have been claimed as a campaign-related expense. The 34 counts consist of one count for each of the 11 checks to reimburse Cohen, also for 11 fake corresponding invoices and 12 corresponding false ledger entries.

Make no mistake: The Manhattan case is not just about hush money. According to the presiding judge, Justice Juan Merchan, “the charges arise from allegations that Defendant attempted to conceal an illegal scheme to influence the 2016 presidential election.” As Bragg described it, the “core” of the case “is not money for sex... It’s about conspiring to corrupt a presidential election and then... lying in New York business records to cover it up… That’s the heart of the case.” Bragg and his team built the case as a “clear-cut instance of election interference, in which a candidate defrauded the American people to win the White House in 2016.”

Alvin Bragg’s Case Against Trump Is Stronger Than You Think

The timing of the scheme establishes its connection to the election. The hush money arrangement with Daniels occurred just after the “Access Hollywood” scandal, when Trump boasted about committing sexual assaults, and was consummated on October 27, 2016, 12 days before the election. As described in the charging documents, Trump initially directed Cohen to delay the payments to Daniels until after the election, “because at that point it would not matter if the story became public.” However, “with pressure mounting and the election approaching,” Trump ultimately agreed to the payoff.

The “catch and kill” scheme was squarely aimed at influencing voters’ perceptions. When Cohen pleaded guilty to eight charges in 2018, the Department of Justice (DOJ) explained that the hush money payments made to Clifford and another woman were “intend[ed] to influence the 2016 presidential election.” Similarly, in its non-prosecution agreement with the DOJ, AMI admitted that the hush money paid to another woman (former Playboy model Karen McDougal) was intended to prevent her from “publiciz[ing] damaging allegations about” Trump “before the 2016 presidential election and thereby influence that election.” And as I explained for The New York Times, it is “entirely possible that the alleged election interference might have altered the outcome of the 2016 contest, which was decided by just under 80,000 votes in three states. Coming on the heels of the ‘Access Hollywood’ disgrace, the effort to keep the scandal from voters may have saved Trump’s political prospects.”

Trump and his defense team dismiss the case as simply a revenge prosecution by a partisan Democratic district attorney. As with his two impeachments, three other criminal prosecutions, and multiple civil suits, Trump has denounced this case as a “witch hunt.” In addition to Trump’s denunciations, the charging decision was met with early and ongoing skepticism. Some observers have criticized the case as unlikely to succeed because it is too political or legally convoluted.

But those criticisms are misplaced. As explained throughout this volume, DA Bragg has built a robust case along a narrowly tailored theory of prosecution: falsifying business records to conceal criminal conduct that hid damaging information during the 2016 presidential campaign. Despite the historical significance of being the first indictment of a former president, the core allegations of falsifying business records are routine.

The overarching theme of the coming trial will be DA Bragg’s argument to the judge, the jury, and the court of public opinion that this case is about our democracy. In America, we value our freedoms—including our freedom to elect leaders who govern in our name. The legitimacy of American governance rests upon the honesty of our elections, and when information is withheld from voters, as Bragg alleges happened here, that undermines democracy. Indeed, the alleged 2016 campaign corruption and cover up may be viewed as setting the pattern for Trump’s presidency and its culmination: his alleged 2020 election interference. For these reasons, we believe the trial is deeply important to our democracy, and so worth understanding in depth. My book is our effort to help readers do just that.

Excerpted from Trying Trump: A Guide to His First Election Interference Criminal Trial, edited by Norm Eisen, SDDF Books. Copyright 2024 by SDDF Books. Reprinted with permission.

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