On March 31, 2023, the United States was rocked by the news that former President Donald Trump had been indicted by a Manhattan grand jury on more than 30 counts of business fraud, marking the first time in American history that a sitting or former president had faced criminal charges. The indictment had been filed under seal and was expected to be unsealed in the coming days, though the charges themselves were not yet publicly known.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office had been investigating Trump’s alleged involvement in a hush money payment scheme and cover-up related to adult film star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential election. While grand jury proceedings are secret, sources familiar with the case confirmed that a witness had given about 30 minutes of testimony before the grand jury voted to indict Trump.
The decision to indict a former president was sure to send shockwaves across the country, pushing the American political system into uncharted waters. Trump, who had been bracing for an indictment but had begun to believe news reports that a potential indictment was weeks – or more – away, was caught off guard by the grand jury’s decision. In response, he released a statement claiming the indictment was “political persecution and election interference at the highest level in history,” and vowing to fight it.
The legal action against Trump jolted the 2024 presidential campaign into a new phase, as the former president had already announced his intention to run for president again despite the pending criminal charges. The indictment also cast a shadow over Trump’s legacy, which had long been marred by accusations of personal and professional wrongdoing.
Trump had long avoided legal consequences in his personal, professional, and political lives. He had settled numerous private civil lawsuits through the years and paid his way out of disputes involving the Trump Organization, his namesake company. As president, he had also managed to avoid conviction by the Senate despite being impeached twice by the Democratic-led House.
The indictment marked a significant turning point in Trump’s legal battles, however, and had the potential to upend his political future. It also had broader implications for the American political system, raising questions about the limits of presidential power and the role of the justice system in holding elected officials accountable.
Background on the Stormy Daniels Case
The charges against Trump stem from his alleged involvement in a hush money payment scheme and cover-up related to adult film star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential election. Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, had alleged that she had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006, which he denied.
In October 2016, just weeks before the presidential election, Daniels was reportedly paid $130,000 in exchange for signing a non-disclosure agreement about the alleged encounter. The payment was made by Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, who later pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations related to the payment.
The payment itself was not illegal, but prosecutors alleged that it was made to influence the outcome of the election and should have been disclosed as a campaign contribution. Cohen later testified that Trump had directed him to make the payment and had reimbursed him for it, which Trump denied.
The case had been the subject of intense media scrutiny and had dogged Trump throughout his presidency. The decision to indict him on charges related to the case marked a significant escalation in the legal battle, and had the potential to expose Trump to significant legal and financial penalties.
Reactions to the Indictment
The news of Trump’s indictment was met with a range of reactions from politicians, pundits, and the public. Supporters of the former president dismissed the charges as politically motivated, while his critics hailed them as a long-overdue reckoning for his alleged misdeeds.
In his statement responding to the indictment, Trump echoed his longstanding claims that he was the victim of political persecution by the Democrats. He has frequently referred to investigations against him as “witch hunts” and attempted to sway public opinion on them by casting himself as a victim. This tactic has been a recurring theme throughout his presidency and subsequent career as a private citizen.
It is unclear how the indictment will affect Trump’s political career, as he has repeatedly hinted at running for president again in 2024. It could also have implications for the Republican Party, which has largely remained supportive of Trump despite his numerous legal challenges.
The charges against Trump are the latest in a string of legal challenges he has faced over the years. As a private citizen, he has settled a number of civil lawsuits and disputes related to the Trump Organization. As president, he was impeached twice by the Democratic-led House, but both times was acquitted by the Senate.
The indictment also comes on the heels of a separate criminal investigation into the Trump Organization and its finances, led by the New York Attorney General’s office. In August 2021, the organization’s chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, was indicted on charges of tax fraud and other financial crimes. Trump has dismissed the investigation as politically motivated and has called Weisselberg a “good man.”
The indictment against Trump is a historic event, as no current or former US president has ever faced criminal charges before. It remains to be seen how the case will unfold and what impact it will have on Trump and the wider political landscape.