The Manhattan district attorney’s decision represents a dramatic escalation of the inquiry, and potentially sets the case on a path toward criminal charges against the former president.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office on Monday began presenting evidence to a grand jury about Donald J. Trump’s role in paying hush money to a porn star during his 2016 presidential campaign, laying the groundwork for potential criminal charges against the former president in the coming months, according to people with knowledge of the matter.
The grand jury was recently impaneled, and the beginning of witness testimony represents a clear signal that the district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, is nearing a decision about whether to charge Mr. Trump.
On Monday, one of the witnesses was seen with his lawyer entering the building in Lower Manhattan where the grand jury is sitting. The witness, David Pecker, is the former publisher of The National Enquirer, the tabloid that helped broker the deal with the porn star, Stormy Daniels.
As prosecutors prepare to reconstruct the events surrounding the payment for grand jurors, they have sought to interview several witnesses, including the tabloid’s former editor, Dylan Howard, and two employees at Mr. Trump’s company, the people said. Mr. Howard and the Trump Organization employees, Jeffrey McConney and Deborah Tarasoff, have not yet testified before the grand jury.
The prosecutors have also begun contacting officials from Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign, one of the people said. And in a sign that they want to corroborate these witness accounts, the prosecutors recently subpoenaed phone records and other documents that might shed light on the episode.
A conviction is not a sure thing, in part because a case could hinge on showing that Mr. Trump and his company falsified records to hide the payout from voters days before the 2016 election, a low-level felony charge that would be based on a largely untested legal theory. The case would also rely on the testimony of Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former fixer who made the payment and who himself pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the hush money in 2018.
Still, the developments compound Mr. Trump’s legal woes as he mounts a third presidential campaign. A district attorney in Georgia could seek to indict him for his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss in the state, and he faces a special counsel investigation into his removal of sensitive documents from the White House as well as his actions during the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Mr. Bragg’s decision to impanel a grand jury focused on the hush money — supercharging the longest-running criminal investigation into Mr. Trump — represents a dramatic escalation in an inquiry that once appeared to have reached a dead end.
Under Mr. Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the district attorney’s office had begun presenting evidence to an earlier grand jury about a case focused on Mr. Trump’s business practices, including whether he fraudulently inflated the value of his assets to secure favorable loans and other benefits. Yet in the early weeks of his tenure last year, Mr. Bragg developed concerns about the strength of that case and decided to abandon the grand jury presentation, prompting the resignations of the two senior prosecutors leading the investigation.
One of them, Mark F. Pomerantz, was highly critical of Mr. Bragg’s decision and has written a book that is scheduled to be published next week, “People vs. Donald Trump,” detailing his account of the inquiry. Mr. Bragg’s office recently wrote to Mr. Pomerantz’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, expressing concern that the book might disclose grand jury information or interfere with the investigation.
Although he balked at charging Mr. Trump over the asset valuations, this is a different case, and Mr. Bragg is now a bolder prosecutor. He has ramped up the hush money inquiry in the weeks since his prosecutors convicted Mr. Trump’s company in an unrelated tax case, a far cry from his unsteady early days in office, when Mr. Bragg was under fire from all quarters for unveiling a host of policies designed to put fewer people behind bars.
For his part, Mr. Trump has denied all wrongdoing and chalked up the scrutiny to a partisan witch hunt against him. He has also denied having an affair with Ms. Daniels. If Mr. Trump were ultimately convicted, he would face a maximum sentence of four years, though prison time would not be mandatory.
“This is just the latest act by the Manhattan D.A. in their never-ending, politically motivated witch hunt,” the Trump Organization said in a statement, adding that reviving the case under what it called a “dubious legal theory” was “simply reprehensible and vindictive.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Bragg’s office declined to comment. Mr. Pecker’s lawyer, Elkan Abramowitz, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A lawyer for Mr. McConney and Ms. Tarasoff declined to comment.
The panel hearing evidence is likely what’s known as a special grand jury. Like regular grand juries, it is made up of 23 Manhattan residents chosen at random. But its members are sworn in to serve for six months to hear complex cases, rather than for 30 days, as is the case with panels that review evidence and vote on whether to bring charges in more routine matters.
The investigation, which has unfolded in fits and starts for more than four years, began with an examination of the hush money deal before expanding to include Mr. Trump’s property valuations. Last summer, Mr. Bragg’s prosecutors returned to the hush money anew, seeking to jump-start the inquiry after the departures of Mr. Pomerantz and Carey R. Dunne, the other senior prosecutor in the investigation.
The district attorney’s office, working with the New York attorney general, Letitia James, is also continuing to scrutinize the way that the former president valued his assets, the people with knowledge of the matter said.
Over the course of the investigation into Mr. Trump, the hush money payment was discussed within the district attorney’s office with such regularity that prosecutors came to refer to it as the “zombie theory” — an idea that just won’t die.
The first visible sign of progress for Mr. Bragg came this month when Mr. Cohen appeared at the district attorney’s office to meet with prosecutors for the first time in more than a year. He is expected to return for at least one additional interview in February, one of the people said.
The lawyer who represented Ms. Daniels in the hush money deal, Keith Davidson, is also expected to meet with prosecutors.
Mr. Trump’s company was instrumental in the deal, court records from Mr. Cohen’s federal case show.
Although Mr. McConney and Ms. Tarasoff were not central players, they helped arrange for Mr. Cohen to be reimbursed for the $130,000 he paid Ms. Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.
Allen H. Weisselberg, the company’s former chief financial officer, was also involved in reimbursing Mr. Cohen. And, according to Mr. Cohen, Mr. Weisselberg was involved in a discussion with Mr. Trump about whether to pay Ms. Daniels.
Mr. Weisselberg is serving jail time after pleading guilty to a tax fraud scheme unrelated to the hush money deal, a case that also led to the conviction of the Trump Organization in December. Although he was the star witness for the district attorney’s office in that case, Mr. Weisselberg has never implicated Mr. Trump in any wrongdoing.
Without his cooperation, prosecutors could struggle to link Mr. Trump directly to the misconduct.
In 2018, when Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance charges stemming from his role in the hush money payments, he pointed the finger at Mr. Trump, saying the payout was done “in coordination with, and at the direction of” the president. Federal prosecutors agreed that Mr. Trump was behind the deal but never charged him or his company with a crime.
There is some circumstantial evidence suggesting that Mr. Trump was involved: He and Mr. Cohen spoke by phone twice the day before Mr. Cohen wired the payment to Ms. Daniels’s lawyer, according to records in the federal case.
For prosecutors, the core of any possible case is the way in which Mr. Trump reimbursed Mr. Cohen for the $130,000 he paid Ms. Daniels and how the company recorded that payment. According to court papers in Mr. Cohen’s federal case, Mr. Trump’s company falsely identified the reimbursements as legal expenses.
The district attorney’s office now appears to be focusing on whether erroneously classifying the payments to Mr. Cohen as a legal expense ran afoul of a New York law that prohibits the falsifying of business records.
Violations of that law can be charged as a misdemeanor. To make it a felony, prosecutors would need to show that Mr. Trump falsified the records to help commit or conceal a second crime — in this case, violating a New York State election law, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. That second aspect has largely gone untested, and would therefore make for a risky legal case against any defendant, let alone the former president.
Defense lawyers might also argue that Mr. Trump, who was a first-time presidential candidate, did not know that the payments violated election law. And they could take aim at Mr. Cohen, arguing that he is a convicted criminal who has an ax to grind against Mr. Trump.
In its statement, the Trump Organization noted that “the narrow issue of whether payments to Michael Cohen were properly recorded in a personal accounting ledger back in 2017 was thoroughly examined” by the federal prosecutors who charged Mr. Cohen and concluded he had engaged in a “pattern of deception.”
Mr. Pecker’s testimony, however, could bolster the prosecution’s contention that Mr. Trump was involved in planning the hush money payment. A longtime ally of Mr. Trump, the publisher agreed to look out for potentially damaging stories about Mr. Trump during the 2016 campaign. He agreed to this at a meeting in Mr. Trump’s office.
In October 2016, Ms. Daniels’s agent and lawyer discussed the possibility of selling exclusive rights to her story to The National Enquirer, which would then never publish it, a practice known as “catch and kill.”
But Mr. Pecker balked at the deal. He and the tabloid’s editor, Mr. Howard, agreed that Mr. Cohen would have to deal with Ms. Daniels’s team directly.
When Mr. Cohen was slow to pay, Mr. Howard pressed him to get the deal done, lest Ms. Daniels reveal their discussions about suppressing her story. “We have to coordinate something,” Mr. Howard texted Mr. Cohen in late October 2016, “or it could look awfully bad for everyone.”
Two days later, Mr. Cohen transferred the $130,000 to an account held by Ms. Daniels’s attorney.
Michael Rothfeld contributed reporting.
Source: Elections - nytimes.com