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The Case Against Donald Trump: What Comes Next?

Criminal charges against Donald J. Trump were unveiled on Tuesday, as prosecutors accused him of participating in a scheme to cover up potential sex scandals during the 2016 presidential campaign.


Mr. Trump pleaded not guilty to 34 felony charges of falsifying business records, all of them focused on his involvement in the payment of hush money to a porn star, Stormy Daniels, who said she had an affair with him.



Mr. Trump was indicted last week, becoming the first current or former American president to be charged with a crime. His arraignment on Tuesday was the culmination of a nearly five-year investigation by the Manhattan district attorney’s office, and it also sets in motion a lengthy legal process. Any potential trial would likely be next year at the earliest.


What happens next?


In the coming months, prosecutors and defense lawyers will exchange documents and evidence and file motions.


Under New York law, the district attorney’s office must turn over most of its evidence to the defense — a process called discovery — within 65 days of a defendant’s first appearance in court.


Prosecutors said at Tuesday’s hearing that discovery would not start until they and defense lawyers agreed on a protective order governing how the materials would be handled or discussed.


Prosecutors are seeking to prohibit Mr. Trump from posting evidence on social media or otherwise providing it to the media. They have also asked that Mr. Trump only be allowed to review certain sensitive case material in his lawyers’ office and that he be prevented from using evidence in the case for political purposes. Mr. Trump’s lawyers objected to at least one of those requests, and the protective order had not yet been finalized on Tuesday.


How might Trump’s legal team respond?


One of Mr. Trump’s lawyers, Joseph Tacopina, said before Tuesday’s hearing that he anticipated filing a motion to dismiss the case — an attempt to have the charges thrown out entirely.


Such motions are routinely filed but seldom result in dismissal. After the arraignment, Mr. Tacopina said that it was too soon to talk about specific details.


Mr. Trump’s lawyers might also seek to have the case moved to another court, another long-shot motion known as a change of venue. The former president has written repeatedly on Truth Social, the social network that he founded, that he does not believe he can get a fair trial in Manhattan, a liberal enclave where he is deeply unpopular. He suggested the trial be moved to the far more conservative borough of Staten Island.


The judge overseeing the case, Juan M. Merchan, set a deadline for Mr. Trump’s lawyers to file all their motions by Aug. 8. Prosecutors will have until Sept. 19 to respond.


When is the next scheduled hearing in the case?


Justice Merchan has set the next hearing in Mr. Trump’s case, when he will rule on motions, for Dec. 4.


Prosecutors said they would like a trial to begin in early January 2024, but Mr. Trump’s lawyers have said that is too soon and that they are looking toward a date later in the spring. Justice Merchan has not yet set a date.


So why was Donald Trump indicted?


The Manhattan district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, began scrutinizing the hush-money payment to Ms. Daniels — which was made by Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s fixer at the time — last summer. Prosecutors impaneled a grand jury in January, and the jurors voted to indict Mr. Trump last week.


At first, Ms. Daniels’s representatives contacted The National Enquirer in an attempt to sell the exclusive rights to her story. David Pecker, the tabloid’s publisher and a longtime ally of Mr. Trump, had agreed to look out for potentially damaging stories about him during the 2016 campaign, and at one point even agreed to buy the story of another woman’s affair with Mr. Trump and never publish it, a practice known as “catch and kill.”


But Mr. Pecker didn’t purchase Ms. Daniels’s story. Instead, he and the tabloid’s top editor, Dylan Howard, helped broker a separate deal between Mr. Cohen and Ms. Daniels’s lawyer.


Mr. Cohen paid $130,000, and Mr. Trump later reimbursed him after he had won the election and taken office.


In 2018, Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to a number of federal crimes, including campaign finance violations involving the hush money. The payment, the federal prosecutors concluded, amounted to an improper donation to Mr. Trump’s campaign.


In the days after Mr. Cohen’s guilty plea, the district attorney’s office opened its own criminal investigation into the matter. While the federal prosecutors were focused on Mr. Cohen, the district attorney’s inquiry would center on Mr. Trump.


So what did Mr. Trump potentially do wrong?


When pleading guilty in federal court, Mr. Cohen pointed the finger at his boss. It was Mr. Trump, he said, who directed him to pay off Ms. Daniels, a contention that federal prosecutors later corroborated.


Those prosecutors also raised questions about Mr. Trump’s monthly reimbursement checks to Mr. Cohen. They said in court papers that Mr. Trump’s company “falsely accounted” for the monthly payments as legal expenses and that company records cited a retainer agreement with Mr. Cohen. Although Mr. Cohen was a lawyer and became Mr. Trump’s personal attorney after he took office, there was no such retainer agreement, and the reimbursement was unrelated to any legal services Mr. Cohen performed.


Mr. Cohen has said that Mr. Trump knew about the phony retainer agreement, an accusation that could form the basis of the case against the former president.


In New York, falsifying business records can amount to a crime, albeit a misdemeanor. To elevate the crime to a felony charge, Mr. Bragg’s prosecutors must show that Mr. Trump’s “intent to defraud” included an intent to commit or conceal a second crime.


Prosecutors do not have to charge Mr. Trump with that secondary crime, or prove that he committed it. They have not yet said definitively what crime or crimes they intend to rely on to escalate the charges to a felony level.


Will it be a tough case to prove?


Convicting Mr. Trump or sending him to prison could be challenging. For one thing, Mr. Trump’s lawyers have already begun attacking Mr. Cohen’s credibility by citing his criminal record. Prosecutors may counter that the former fixer lied years ago on behalf of his boss at the time and is now in the best position to detail Mr. Trump’s conduct.


According to legal experts, New York prosecutors have never before combined the falsifying business records charge with a violation of state election law in a case involving a presidential election, or any federal campaign. If the prosecutors choose to use a state election law as a secondary crime — a possibility that Mr. Bragg mentioned on Tuesday — it is possible that a judge could throw it out or reduce the felony charge to a misdemeanor.


Even if the charge is allowed to stand, it amounts to a low-level felony. If Mr. Trump were ultimately convicted, he would face a maximum sentence of four years, though prison time would not be mandatory.


How did Mr. Trump respond to the charges?


Mr. Trump spoke little during his arraignment, saying fewer than a dozen words. He did not speak to reporters in New York, instead returning to Mar-a-Lago, his resort in Palm Beach, Fla., where he gave a speech decrying the case against him.


Surrounded by his family and Republican Party officials, Mr. Trump called Mr. Bragg a “criminal,” asserting without evidence that the Manhattan district attorney had leaked information from the grand jury.


He also accused Justice Merchan of bias, labeling him “a Trump-hating judge” and attacking his family.


Throughout the investigation, Mr. Trump has said the district attorney’s inquiry and others he is facing are politically motivated. Shortly after he was indicted, he called the Manhattan grand jury’s decision “political Persecution and Election Interference at the highest level in history.”


Yet even as Mr. Trump was blasting prosecutors, his campaign used the criminal charges against him in a fund-raising push, creating a $36 T-shirt an image mocked up to look like the former president’s mug shot — even though the authorities did not take a booking photo when Mr. Trump was in custody.

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