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Explained: Why Has Donald Trump Been Indicted, What's The Stormy Daniels Case?

Former US President Donald Trump has been indicted in a case of hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels. While the payment itself is not under investigated, it's reportedly alleged that Trump falsified the payment records.

Former US President Donald Trump
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Former US President Donald Trump has been indicted in a 2016 hush money case. He is the first US President, current or former, to have been indicted.

The case relates to a 'hush money' payment made to adult film star Stormy Daniels on behalf of Trump in the run-up to 2016 US presidential election. While the charges against Trump are not yet specified, it's expected the case would be based on the violation of presidential campaign finance laws. 

The Trump supporters and several Conservative leaders have come out in support of Trump and have said the indictment is a witch hunt by the democrats. The Manhatton District Attorney who is leading the case against Trump is a Democrat. 

Here we explain what's the Daniels hush money case, what the indictment means, what are Trump's legal troubles, and what it means for 2024 election.

What we know of Donald Trump's indictment?

Donald Trump has been indicted by a Manhattan grand jury over hush money payments made porn star Stormy Daniels during his 2016.

The office of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who has been pursuing the investigation, confirmed that it had contacted Trump’s lawyers on Thursday evening to "coordinate his surrender" on unspecified charges.

"This evening we contacted Mr. Trump’s attorney to coordinate his surrender to the Manhattan D. A.'s office for arraignment on a Supreme Court indictment, which remains under seal. Guidance will be provided when the arraignment date is selected," a spokesperson for District Attorney Bragg said.

Notably, an indictment is the first step towards a trial. Following an indictment, a judge will issue a warrant and then Trump will be taken into custody for finger-prints and other formalities, following which he would appear in court. He would either be jailed or released.

The New York Times newspaper, quoting five people with knowledge of the matter, reported that the grand jury on Thursday voted to indict 76-year-old Trump, a Republican, for his role in paying money to Daniels in an attempt to buy her silence over an alleged affair. The report termed it "a historic development that will shake up the 2024 presidential race and forever mark him as the nation's first former president to face criminal charges".

Trump is expected to fly from his home in Florida to New York on Monday and be arraigned in court on Tuesday, two sources familiar with the matter told CBS News. The proceeding is expected to be brief. The charges in the indictment will be read to him at the hearing, which is set to last about 10-15 minutes.

What's the Stormy Daniels case?

The case in which former US President Donald Trump has been indicted relates to a hush payment made to porn star Stormy Daniels to buy her silence.

Daniels has alleged that she had an affair and a consensual sexual encounter with Trump in 2006. Trump denies this. However, to keep her silent ahead of the 2016 presidential election that he eventually won, $130,000 were paid to Daniels via the then-Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen. Cohen was later reimbursed for the payment.

Such hush payments are not illegal and the payment itself is not under investigation. It is alleged that the way the payment was made and the way it was reimbursed to Cohen violated campaign finance laws. The case, therefore, is about the allegations that the transactions were wrongfully and falsely fed into account books of Trump businesses.

The CNN notes, "According to court filings in Cohen’s own federal prosecution, Trump Org. executives authorized payments to him totaling $420,000 to cover his original $130,000 payment and tax liabilities and reward him with a bonus...Charges have not been made public but ahead of the indictment, prosecutors were weighing whether to charge Trump with falsifying the business records of the Trump Organization for how it reflected the reimbursement of the payment to Cohen, who said he advanced the money to Daniels. Falsifying business records is a misdemeanor in New York."

Another line of legal thinking says that Manhatton DA Alvin Bragg has charged Trump with falsifying records to cover up another crime which would be a felony and a bigger charge than misdemeanor. 

Vox explains, "The clearest New York state charge against Trump here would be that he falsified business records. When the Trump Organization reimbursed Cohen for the hush money payment to Daniels, they logged the payments as legal expenses — but Cohen was acting as a bagman in this case, not an attorney...To turn a misdemeanor business records violation into a felony, Bragg has to argue that the records were falsified to cover up another crime. But what crime?"

Vox goes on to mention that the case against Trump is not watertight. 

"Three main possibilities have been mentioned in commentary: that Bragg could argue the payment violated state campaign finance law, that he could try to incorporate the federal law violation anyway, or that perhaps state tax law would come into play somehow. But if Bragg’s reasoning and evidence are weak here, the felony charge could well be tossed out of court...All of this shows that the case is not exactly well-founded in precedent," notes Vox.

The Vox piece adds that such a loose case give credence to the belief that the investigation is politically motivated.

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How has Donald Trump reacted?

Former US President Donald Trump has denied all wrongdoing in connection with the payments made ahead of the election.

In a statement responding to news of his indictment, Trump called it "Political persecution and election interference at the highest level in history," and accused Democrats of "weaponizing our justice system to punish a political opponent, who just so happens to be a President of the United States."

"The Democrats have lied, cheated and stolen in their obsession with trying to 'Get Trump,' but now they've done the unthinkable — indicting a completely innocent person in an act of blatant Election Interference," Trump said.

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Trump lashed out at the Manhattan district attorney, calling the prosecutor a "disgrace", and accused him of "doing Joe Biden's dirty work".

"This is third-world prosecutorial misconduct. It is the opportunistic targeting of a political opponent in a campaign year," Trump's son Eric tweeted.

Trump attorneys Susan Necheles and Joseph Tacopina issued a statement, saying that the former president "did not commit any crime" and vowed to "vigorously fight this political prosecution in Court".

What it means for 2024 presidential election?

Political observers have said that indictment of President Donald Trump could further boost his appeal among right-wing and far-right of the United States.

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Observers have noted that the case is not watertight and have said that, if the case falls, Trump might benefit from it.

Election news and polling site FiveThirtyEight notes, "The extent to which Trump is able to make those criticisms stick will depend a lot on the strength of the case: If the Stormy Daniels case ends up being weak, it could bolster Trump’s argument that Bragg’s case against him is just politically motivated. But his efforts to tie Bragg to the broader Democratic Party — and by extension, President Biden — could be harder to pull off."

Vox notes, "This leaves open the possibility that Bragg is trying to reverse-engineer a preferred outcome — a felony charge against Trump — for political purposes, and is stretching to bring a case that would not typically be brought. And Trump’s allies have not been shy about making this argument."

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The Lincoln Project's Founder Rick Wilson tweeted that arrest of Trump would lead to supporters rallying politically and physically around Trump. 

Indian-American Republican presidential candidates Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy have claimed that former US president Donald Trump's indictment in a criminal case was about "revenge" and said it was a "dark day" in the history of the country.

Former Vice President Mike Pence who served under Trump said that while "no one is above the law, including former presidents", that he cannot "speak to the merit of this case at all".

"I really do believe that this decision today is a great disservice to the country and the idea that for the first time in American history a former president would be indicted on a campaign finance issue to me, it just smacks of political prosecution, and I think the overwhelming majority of the American people will see it that way," Pence told CNN.

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(With AP, PTI inputs)

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