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What we know about Trump possibly facing criminal indictment in New York City

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg speaks at a press conference in January, after a sentencing hearing of the Trump Organization. Bragg's office has invited former President Trump to testify before a grand jury — a step that often precedes an indictment.
Michael M. Santiago
Getty Images
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg speaks at a press conference in January, after a sentencing hearing of the Trump Organization. Bragg's office has invited former President Trump to testify before a grand jury — a step that often precedes an indictment.

Former President Donald Trump has been invited to testify before a New York City grand jury — a move that is widely understood to mean Trump could soon face criminal charges related to his financial dealings and the payment of hush money to Stephanie Clifford, the adult film star also known as Stormy Daniels.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg's office invited Trump to testify next week, according to a person familiar with the investigation.

In New York, an offer to speak in front of a grand jury is typically the last step before a criminal indictment. State law mandates that potential defendants must be given an opportunity to appear before a grand jury to answer questions before they are indicted.

Any indictment is expected to be weeks away, but such an action would be extraordinary: Trump would become the first former president in U.S. history to be indicted.

Neither Trump nor his lawyer has signaled whether Trump would accept the invitation, but it is unlikely he would agree to appear. In recent weeks, former Trump campaign officials and business executives have traveled to the D.A.'s office in Lower Manhattan to testify under oath.

The invitation to testify was first reported by The New York Times. In response, the former president called it "a political Witch-Hunt trying to take down the leading candidate, by far, in the Republican Party."

Here's a rundown of related developments:

Trump's lawyer pleaded guilty in 2018

Signs of a looming indictment spring from probes into Trump's ties to Clifford. In 2018, Trump's longtime personal attorney, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to a raft of federal charges, including making illegal campaign contributions in the form of payouts to women in exchange for their public silence about their personal relationships with Trump.

In the months before the 2016 presidential election, Cohen said, he paid Clifford $130,000 — a sum for which Trump acknowledged reimbursing Cohen — even as Trump denied having an affair with her.

The manner of that repayment raised even more red flags, the Justice Department said in 2018, noting that Cohen was repaid through "monthly installments disguised as payments for legal services performed pursuant to a retainer, when in fact no such retainer existed."

Cohen also said he set up a deal in which American Media, Inc., parent company of the National Enquirer, paid $150,000 to former Playboy model Karen McDougal. The company paid McDougal, who said she had an affair with Trump, for exclusive rights to her story — with the aim of keeping the story out of public view.

Trump allegedly directed payments to be made

Federal prosecutors and Cohen say it was Trump who directed Cohen to arrange for hush payments to Clifford and McDougal. But the Justice Department did not bring charges against Trump, who was then in the middle of serving his presidential term.

In 2018, former Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.'s office picked up the threads of the federal inquiry into Trump and his political campaign; it also looked into the Trump Organization's tax practices.

But those efforts were slowed on two fronts: by the COVID-19 pandemic and by Trump himself, who went to the Supreme Court in an effort to block the prosecutor's subpoena for tax returns and other financial records.

Vance convened a grand jury in November 2021 to consider evidence in the case. But Vance's term expired a month later, after he opted not to seek reelection. And after Bragg took charge at the start of 2022, questions arose about whether he would pursue charges against Trump. Two lead lawyers working on the probe resigned after the office stopped making presentations to the grand jury.

Bragg's office confirmed last year that it was still actively working on the case. At the time, Bragg said his office was "going through documents, interviewing witnesses and exploring evidence not previously explored."

Inquiries found a bogus paper trail

In its investigation, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office put a particular focus not on the hush money itself, but the way Cohen was repaid.

In what seemed to be an attempt to create an appearance of propriety, Cohen submitted bogus invoices for "legal services rendered pursuant to a monthly retainer agreement," according to Mark Pomerantz, a veteran prosecutor who helped lead the office's probe that started under Vance and who later resigned.

"But there was no monthly retainer agreement," Pomerantz told NPR's Fresh Air last month. "The money wasn't for legal services. That's how the payments were documented. So the documentation of the reimbursement involved the creation of false business records, which is a crime under New York law."

Such a crime would rise to the felony level, Pomerantz added, if the action is undertaken to commit or conceal another crime.

When Pomerantz left the prosecutor's office, he left no doubt that he thinks Trump should face charges.

"I believe that Donald Trump is guilty of numerous felony violations of the Penal Law in connection with the preparation and use of his annual Statements of Financial Condition," Pomerantz wrote in his resignation letter. "His financial statements were false, and he has a long history of fabricating information relating to his personal finances and lying about his assets."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Andrea Bernstein
[Copyright 2024 NPR]