FILE PHOTO: Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at Gaylord National Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, U.S., March 4, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
By Luc Cohen
NEW YORK (Reuters) – A New York City prosecutor is taking steps toward a possible indictment of former President Donald Trump, reviving an investigation into an alleged hush money payment to a porn star made during his 2016 campaign for the White House.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has come under political pressure for not bringing charges against Trump earlier, but has now invited Trump to testify before a grand jury, according to Susan Necheles, a lawyer for Trump.
Legal experts say that is a sign charges are likely.
The probe into whether Trump, a Republican, directed his former lawyer Michael Cohen to make a $130,000 payment to buy Stormy Daniels’ silence about an affair she said she had with Trump offers Bragg another chance to bring the first ever indictment of a former president.
The probe comes at a critical time, as Trump is running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.
Bragg, a Democrat, took office in January 2022, after his predecessor indicted the former president’s family company and its top financial executive over a 15-year-tax fraud scheme.
A prosecutor leading that probe, Mark Pomerantz, resigned in February 2022 after Bragg declined to charge Trump himself for financial crimes. Pomerantz has publicly criticized Bragg’s decision not to bring charges and published a book about the investigation.
Pomerantz has said concerns about potentially losing the case should be weighed against the possibility of “promoting disrespect for the law” by not bringing charges when warranted.
Bragg has defended his decision.
“I bring hard cases when they are ready,” Bragg said in a Feb. 7 press conference. “Mark Pomerantz’s case simply was not ready. So I said to my team, let’s keep working.”
A spokeswoman for Bragg, who could still decline to charge Trump, referred to Bragg’s earlier statement. Trump has called the probe a “witch hunt.”
A grand jury began hearing evidence in the case earlier this year.
Cohen previously testified that Trump directed him to arrange the payment, made in the run-up to the 2016 election, and pleaded guilty in December 2018 to campaign finance violations and other charges.
“For the DA’s office to charge former President Trump, a victim of extortion, with a crime because his then lawyer, Michael Cohen, a convicted liar, paid the extortionist would be unprecedented and outrageous selective prosecution,” Necheles said in a statement on Friday.
Proving Trump intended to commit a crime may be one of Bragg’s biggest challenges, said Jennifer Beidel, a partner at law firm Saul Ewing and former federal prosecutor.
“One would think that the former president would try to argue that people independent of him were making their own choices about what to do, maybe out of motivation to please him, but maybe not with his direction,” Beidel said.
Bragg, the first Black District Attorney in Manhattan, previously served as a federal prosecutor and as a senior official in the New York State Attorney General’s office, where he oversaw a lawsuit that forced the former president’s namesake charitable foundation to dissolve.
Shortly after taking office, he came under criticism for a plan to refrain from prosecuting some minor offenses, reduce pretrial detention and limit sentence length. Bragg argued that “over-incarceration” has not improved public safety.
In the biggest trial victory so far in his tenure, his office last December won the conviction of the Trump Organization on tax fraud charges. That came after Allen Weisselberg, its former chief financial officer, pleaded guilty and testified against the company at trial.
Several observers have defended Bragg against Pomerantz’s criticism.
“Bragg’s decision not to pull the trigger in February 2022 … actually may have been courageous, not cowardly,” Andrew Weissman, a former federal prosecutor, wrote in a review of Pomerantz’s book in the Washington Post. “He hardly had anything to gain and a lot to lose politically by the decision.”