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All you need to know about the trial Donald Trump faces in Manhattan

Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first degree, all of which are tied to the former president’s role in a hush-money payment to a porn actor, Stormy Daniels.
Last Updated : 08 April 2024, 08:36 IST

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New York: In just one week, Donald Trump will go on trial in Manhattan — the first former US president to be criminally prosecuted.

The trial, which will begin with jury selection and last up to two months, will oscillate between salacious testimony on sex scandals and granular detail about corporate documents.

Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first degree, all of which are tied to the former president’s role in a hush-money payment to a porn actor, Stormy Daniels.

But that payoff is not the only hush-money deal that prosecutors plan to highlight. The prosecutors, from the Manhattan district attorney’s office, have accused Trump of orchestrating a broader scheme to influence the 2016 presidential election by purchasing damaging stories about him to keep them under wraps.

It is the first of Trump’s four criminal cases to go to trial — and it could be the only one to do so before Election Day.

Trump, who is again the presumptive Republican nominee for president, has denied all wrongdoing. He also assailed the district attorney, Alvin Bragg, for bringing the charges, accusing him of carrying out a politically motivated witch hunt. And he has attacked the judge presiding over the case, Juan M. Merchan.

Here are answers to some key questions about the trial:

What is Trump accused of?

The charges trace back to a $130,000 hush-money payment that Trump’s fixer, Michael Cohen, made to Daniels in the final days of the 2016 campaign. The payment, which Cohen said he had made at Trump’s direction, suppressed her story of a sexual liaison that she said she had with Trump.

Paying hush money is not always illegal.

But while serving as the commander in chief, Trump reimbursed Cohen, and how he did so constituted fraud, prosecutors say.

In internal records, Trump’s company classified the repayment to Cohen as legal expenses, citing a retainer agreement. Yet there were no such expenses, the prosecutors say, and the retainer agreement was fictional too.

Those records underpin the 34 counts of falsifying business records: 11 counts involve the checks, 11 center on monthly invoices Cohen submitted to the company, and 12 involve entries in the general ledger for Trump’s trust.

Why did prosecutors cite other hush-money payments?

Bragg’s office linked Trump to three hush-money deals. While Trump is indicted only in connection with the business records related to Daniels, the prosecutors most likely mentioned the other deals to begin the work of proving that Trump intended to conceal a second crime.

In addition to the indictment, the prosecutors filed a so-called statement of facts that referenced the other payoffs.

That document, common in complex white-collar cases, provides something of a road map for what the prosecutors could reveal at trial. And based on evidence presented to the grand jury, the document details the two hush-money deals involving The National Enquirer, which has long-standing ties to Trump.

The first involved the tabloid’s payment of $30,000 to a former Trump Tower doorman who claimed to know that Trump had fathered a child out of wedlock. The publication later determined the claim to be untrue.

The National Enquirer also made a payment to Karen McDougal, Playboy’s Playmate of the Year in 1998, who wanted to sell her story of an affair with Trump during the 2016 campaign. She reached a $150,000 agreement with the tabloid, which bought the rights to her story to suppress it — a practice known as “catch and kill.”

The deals suggest that the payment to Daniels was not an isolated incident but rather part of a broader strategy to influence the 2016 election.

Why is it a felony to falsify records?

Falsifying business records in New York state can be a misdemeanor. But it can be elevated to a felony if prosecutors prove that the records were falsified to conceal another crime.

In this case, there are three potential additional crimes that Bragg has accused Trump of concealing: a federal campaign finance violation, a state election-law crime and tax fraud.

The campaign crimes, prosecutors say, involve the hush-money payoffs to Daniels and McDougal. The payments, they argue, were illegal donations to Trump’s campaign.

The potential tax fraud stems from the way in which Cohen was reimbursed for his payment to Daniels.

Do prosecutors need to convict Trump of the other crimes?

No. Prosecutors do not have to charge Trump with any secondary crime or prove that he committed it.

They still must show, however, that there was intent to “commit or conceal” a second crime.

Who will the witnesses be?

Cohen is expected to be a crucial witness for the prosecution. His testimony could take days.

Bragg’s prosecutors are also expected to call David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer, as well as Hope Hicks, a former campaign and White House aide to Trump, to shed light on the tumultuous period surrounding the hush-money payments.

Daniels and McDougal could be witnesses as well.

What will the defense do?

The defense will most likely try to paint Cohen as a Trump-hating liar, noting that he and the former president had a falling-out years ago. Trump’s lawyers are expected to emphasize that Cohen pleaded guilty to a variety of federal crimes in 2018 — including for his role in the hush-money payment.

Cohen might be the only witness who could directly tie Trump to the false business records, a potential limitation of the case that Trump’s lawyers could seek to exploit.

Whether Trump’s lawyers will call any witnesses is unclear, but Trump could take the stand in his own defense.

Who is the judge?

Merchan is a veteran judge known as a no-nonsense, drama-averse jurist. This case is already testing his patience.

Since the Manhattan district attorney charged Trump last year, the former president has used campaign emails, social media and repetitive legal filings to attack the judge’s integrity and family. Last week, the former president demanded for a second time that Merchan step aside, citing his daughter’s position at a Democratic consulting firm that worked for the 2020 Biden campaign.

The judge, who is expected to rule on that request in the coming days, has also issued a gag order to protect prosecutors, witnesses and his own family from Trump’s vitriol. And yet the former president has continued to post articles with pictures of the justice’s daughter.

During the trial, Merchan will be in charge of keeping order in the courtroom and ruling on objections made by prosecutors and Trump’s lawyers. The jury will ultimately decide whether Trump is guilty.

What is the maximum sentence if Trump is convicted?

The charges against Trump are all Class E felonies, the lowest category of felonies in New York. Each count carries a maximum prison sentence of four years. Merchan has made it clear that he takes white-collar crime seriously and could throw Trump behind bars. It’s possible, however, that Merchan would impose a concurrent sentence — under which Trump would serve all prison time simultaneously — if the former president were convicted of more than one count.

And nothing in the law requires Merchan to imprison Trump if he’s convicted by a jury. The judge could instead sentence him to probation.

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Published 08 April 2024, 08:36 IST

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