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Manhattan prosecutors again consider a path toward charging Trump

Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg speaking during a news conference, Nov. 21 in New York.Associated Press

NEW YORK — The Manhattan district attorney’s office has moved to jump-start its criminal investigation into Donald Trump, according to people with knowledge of the matter, seeking to breathe new life into an inquiry that once seemed to have reached a dead end.

Under the new district attorney, Alvin Bragg, the prosecutors have returned to the long-running investigation’s original focus: a hush-money payment to a porn star who said she had an affair with Trump.

The district attorney’s office first examined the payment to the actress, Stormy Daniels, years ago before changing direction to scrutinize Trump’s broader business practices. But Bragg and some of his deputies have recently indicated to associates, supporters, and at least one lawyer involved in the matter that they are newly optimistic about building a case against Trump, the people said.

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The renewed scrutiny of the hush money comes amid an intensifying swirl of legal and political drama around Trump. On Friday, Merrick Garland, the US attorney general, appointed a special prosecutor who vowed to proceed quickly with two federal investigations into the former president. It is unclear whether Bragg or the special counsel will ultimately seek charges against Trump, who just announced a third presidential run.

For Bragg, the hush-money developments suggest the first signs of progress since he took office at the beginning of the year, when he balked at indicting Trump in connection with his business practices.

But in bringing the inquiry full circle to the hush-money payment, Bragg is focusing on an aspect of the investigation that previously failed to bear fruit.

The idea of building a case around the hush money had resurfaced with such regularity in recent years that prosecutors came to refer to it as the “zombie theory,” an idea that just wouldn’t die, one of the people said.

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Under Bragg’s predecessor, the district attorney’s office rejected the idea of focusing a case solely on the hush money, concluding, with the help of outside legal experts, that it would hinge on a largely untested and therefore risky legal theory. And if Bragg were to charge Trump without uncovering any new evidence or relying on a more conventional theory, he would risk having a judge or appellate court throw out the case.

To help build the hush-money case, prosecutors are revisiting another strategy that has yet to work: pressuring a top Trump lieutenant, Allen Weisselberg, to cooperate.

While Weisselberg has already pleaded guilty to unrelated tax charges and testified last week against Trump’s company at its trial for the same tax crimes, he has not turned on Trump. To ramp up the pressure, the prosecutors are considering a new round of charges against Weisselberg in hopes of securing his cooperation against the former president, the people said. Those potential charges concern insurance fraud and are unrelated to the hush money.

Weisselberg, who has direct knowledge of the hush-money payment, has long resisted the prosecutorial pressure campaign, repeatedly stymieing the investigation into Trump. There is little indication that the loyal executive, the former president’s financial gatekeeper for decades, will suddenly give in to Bragg.

The district attorney also may face some time pressure. Several other investigations into Trump appear to be heating up, including those overseen by the new special counsel.

Bragg’s prosecutors, however, are in the midst of the tax fraud trial and have not presented evidence to a grand jury about the hush money, suggesting that, if they decide to seek charges, it won’t happen this year, the people with knowledge of the matter said.

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And so, even as Bragg may secure a conviction of the former president’s family business in the tax trial, which would mark a major milestone for his office, the district attorney still faces a daunting path to charging Trump himself.

A spokeswoman for Bragg declined to comment, as did Weisselberg’s lawyer, Nicholas A. Gravante Jr.

Trump has denied all wrongdoing and said he never had an affair with Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford. Michael van der Veen, a lawyer for Trump’s company, said: “I really don’t believe that they’re going back and conducting these investigations, and if there’s any truth to it, it would show poor judgment,” adding, “The millions of taxpayer dollars they’ve spent on countless investigations, it’s a big waste of time and money.”

The investigation into Trump has touched on a wide range of his business practices over the last four years, but it all began with the $130,000 in hush money.

Michael Cohen, who served as Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer, paid the money during the final days of the 2016 campaign to buy the silence of Daniels. Federal prosecutors, concluding that the payment amounted to an illegal campaign contribution, extracted a guilty plea from Cohen, who said that he was following orders from Trump.

Trump and his company reimbursed Cohen for the $130,000, further raising questions about their involvement in the hush-money deal.

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Although it came in federal court, Cohen’s plea provided the impetus for the district attorney’s office to investigate whether Trump ran afoul of state laws with the hush-money payment. In particular, they examined whether the company falsely accounted for the reimbursements to Cohen as a legal expense — in violation of a New York law that prohibits the falsifying of business records.

The investigation gained steam when the district attorney at the time, Cyrus Vance, subpoenaed Trump’s accounting firm for his tax returns and other financial records, spurring a long legal battle that resulted in a US Supreme Court ruling in Vance’s favor. But by the time Vance obtained Trump’s tax returns in early 2021, he had developed concerns about indicting Trump on charges of falsifying Trump Organization records related to the hush money.