Let’s hope that Alvin Bragg has more – more documents, more secret conversations, more evidence than what has leaked out publicly to make the case that Donald Trump belongs in prison over $130,000 in hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels.
Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney who now holds a bigger spotlight than any prosecutor since Trump’s old nemesis Robert Mueller, will likely show his hand publicly for the first time on Tuesday with the unsealing of an indictment handed down last week by a grand jury.
What’s in that hand, and whether it goes beyond the tenuous fragments that have come out publicly in a flood of news reports, will be critical for the country’s democracy.
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Will Trump be convicted? Legal experts say it isn’t certain
The evidence that has leaked publicly from the secret grand jury process indicates that Bragg’s office is pursuing a novel legal theory portraying the hush money to Daniels as an illegal donation to Trump’s 2016 campaign, a matter normally handled by federal prosecutors, not a local DA.
A number of legal experts whom I’ve spoken with describe the case, based on what is now known publicly, as far from a slam dunk for prosecutors who are used to winning the vast majority of their cases.
That is why the details of the indictment, which reportedly totals more than two dozen criminal counts, will be so critical at a time when the country is treading in uncharted waters, with an ex-president under criminal indictment and running again for the White House.
Does Bragg have more than what we have seen publicly – if not a smoking gun, at least more evidence that Trump knowingly paid off Daniels specifically to help his bid for the White House and illegally falsified business records in the process? Let’s hope so, for the sake of the country, because a wobbly prosecution that ultimately falls apart in court would help no one, except perhaps Trump in his White House bid.
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The New York grand jury heard from witnesses as recently as last week, including a second appearance by Trump ally David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer, who was involved with former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen in negotiating the $130,000 payment to Daniels to keep her quiet before the 2016 election about what she said was an affair with Trump.
Pecker was also involved in a separate payoff to former Playboy model Karen McDougal over her relationship with Trump.
What exactly Pecker told the grand jury last week is unknown. His appearance suggests that prosecutors were not merely wrapping up details of the case, but gathering important evidence against Trump practically until the day the grand jury voted to indict him.
Trump’s most ardent supporters will never trust any legal judgment, no matter how strong the evidence, against a man who has screamed of various “witch hunts” for years and famously declared that he could “shoot somebody” in the middle of Fifth Avenue and “wouldn’t lose any voters.”
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But for others, both allies and opponents of Trump, the strength of the evidence laid out in the still-sealed indictment will provide a first indication of whether Bragg really has the goods on the 45th president.
That’s a vital question because while the criminal case against Trump will be decided in court, the political impact from the noisy court of public opinion will reverberate through the 2024 election and beyond.
Trump faces other criminal investigations
Trump, of course, is facing other criminal investigations beyond Bragg’s office – an investigation by the district attorney in Atlanta over possible election interference in trying to overturn his election loss in the state in 2020; and a separate probe by Jack Smith, special counsel under the U.S. Justice Department, into Trump’s retention of classified documents after he left the White House and possible election interference.
Those investigations face their own legal hurdles if they are to be prosecuted. But Bragg, as the first one out the door, faces the most intense scrutiny, with Trump already attacking the prosecutor in ugly terms as an “animal” and raising the specter of violence from his prosecution.
With so much at stake, Bragg needs to get it right.
Eric Lichtblau is an author and investigative reporter in Washington who has won two Pulitzer Prizes in journalism in writing about national security and law enforcement affairs.