Donald Trump’s ‘zombie’ case is headed to an unlikely place in history


In March 2021, an investigation into payments allegedly made by Donald Trump to buy the silence of a porn star was, in the view of Manhattan prosecutors charged with prosecuting the former president, dead and buried.

Yet on Monday, the “zombies” case – abandoned by a former district attorney and by federal prosecutors who probably deemed it too fragile to charge, before being revived last year – will come back to life, like the whole first criminal indictment of a former US president is on trial in New York.

Trump faces more serious charges elsewhere, for his alleged attempts to disrupt the peaceful transition of power and keeping classified documents in the bathroom of his Mar-a-Lago mansion.

But it is the “silence” affair – which revolves around allegations of a sordid behind-the-scenes deal made in the days leading up to the 2016 elections to prevent the revelation of an extramarital affair – that seems increasingly more likely to be the only one to be heard by a court. jury of Trump’s peers before the November election.

For six weeks, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee will be forced off the campaign trail to sit in a Manhattan courtroom and fight a possible conviction that could make him the first criminal to enter the White House.

Trump, his lawyers and media allies have repeatedly denounced the case as a politically motivated “witch hunt” by Democratic New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg, seeking to distract from what they see as a poor record in the fight against street crimes in the metropolis. .

But even experienced jurists and advocates across the political spectrum have expressed skepticism. “The weaknesses of this case are obvious,” said Richard Klein, a professor at Touro Law School. The conduct in question is so light, he adds, that it amounts to “a stupid, banal and insignificant case”.

“There is no doubt that there is bad behavior”

The charges relate to alleged payments totaling $130,000 to Stormy Daniels, who threatened to expose what she claimed was an affair with Trump. Although this is inappropriate, it is not illegal per se under New York State law.

Bragg alleged that Trump hid those payments in private business records, which is classified as a lesser offense in the state. “Falsifying” a corporation’s tax returns is potentially a more serious crime if it is done to commit or conceal another crime, which in this case, according to the prosecutor, could constitute a violation of tax or election law .

Although the charge of “falsifying business records” is commonly brought in New York State, it is rarely the most significant offense in an indictment and has never previously been linked to a federal campaign finance violation.

Mark Pomerantz, who was hired by the prosecutor’s office to work on the Trump investigations but resigned in 2022 in protest after charges were not filed, wrote in a book published after his departure that his colleagues were concerned that “no appeals court in New York has consistently upheld (or rejected) this interpretation of the law.”

“There is no doubt that there is bad behavior [by Trump] here,” said Randall Eliason, a former federal prosecutor who is now a law professor at George Washington University. “The question is whether particular criminal laws are being violated. »

A major challenge for the prosecutor’s team, Eliason said, is proving that Trump intended to defraud by concealing the secret payments to Daniels. The false documents were allegedly entered by the former president several months after the 2016 elections, he pointed out, in the internal accounting books of a private company. “Voters weren’t allowed to see them – you couldn’t influence any voters or influence the election,” he added.

Unprecedented legal questions aren’t the only obstacles Bragg faces. To prove his case, the Manhattan district attorney will have to rely on witnesses such as former Trump fixer Michael Cohen, who previously pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and was convicted of perjury. There’s also Daniels, who once denied the affair, only to later clarify that she did so out of fear of legal consequences for violating a nondisclosure agreement.

Both have been vocal critics of Trump, writing books condemning the 77-year-old and flooding the airwaves with their critiques for several years.

Klein said: “For a jury to assess the credibility of the prosecution’s star witnesses, it will be a . . . a difficult obstacle for Bragg’s office to overcome. In fact, he added, the prosecution will say, “Well, they lied in the past, but now they don’t.” »

Of the four criminal charges against Trump, the Manhattan “secrecy” charges also carry the lightest potential sentence, and the former president is unlikely to be incarcerated anyway.

Yet it is the New York State court system that has proven most resistant to the former president’s legal tactic of attempting to delay the proceedings by any means necessary, including charging the judge of bias and claiming that local jury selection is tainted by persistent press. coverage of Trump’s misdeeds.

Bragg’s team quickly countered Trump’s attempts to take the case to federal court and asked the judge overseeing the case to bar his lawyers from making blanket arguments that their client was following legal advice by falsifying documents.

“This is a case of electoral interference”

The case is expected to result in a conviction. The former president’s companies were found guilty of tax fraud by the same court in late 2022, while his former chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, was sent to prison for tax fraud at the Trump Organization.

Temidayo Aganga-Williams, a former federal prosecutor who served on the committee that investigated Trump’s role in fueling the January 6, 2021, insurrection — events at the center of two other criminal indictments against the former president – ​​maintains that the fragility of Bragg’s case has been “exaggerated.” “.

“The idea that it’s not January 6 doesn’t in itself make it a weak argument,” said Aganga-Williams, now at Selendy Gay. “This is a case of electoral interference,” he added. Trump “once again thought his desires trumped what the American people should know and be able to decide.” . . [the trial is] I’m going to show people that even a former president is subject to the law.”

It is unclear, however, exactly what electoral condemnation would mean for Trump. An Ipsos poll for Politico found that 53 percent of Americans would be either as likely or more likely to support him if he were convicted in the Manhattan case. People close to the former president said they hope there will be enough distance between the trial and Election Day for the case to fade from voters’ minds.

Even those who themselves find good in these accusations fear that they could ultimately have a deleterious effect on American democracy.

David Boies, the lawyer who represented Al Gore before the Supreme Court in the fight over the outcome of the 2000 presidential election, and who donated to several Democrats, including President Joe Biden, called the lawsuits against Trump “grossly erroneous”.

“It’s better to give other countries the opportunity to criminally charge a former president,” he told lawyer and podcast host David Lat in February.

“If you take, for example, the prosecutions against him in New York – which I think many legal experts agree are justifiable cases – you have to ask yourself: Would these prosecutions have been brought against him if he s called Donald Smith? And I fear that a very large number of people in this country think that they would not have done it.”


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