After a Manhattan grand jury voted to indict former president Donald Trump on Thursday, scholars and lawyers weighed in on the unprecedented development in American history.
Trump, a Republican, is the first former or sitting president to face criminal charges. He was indicted in connection with an alleged hush money payment to a porn star in the closing days of his 2016 presidential campaign.
The indictment was not unsealed, so the charges were not immediately clear. But they relate to Trump’s role in allegedly directing his lawyer to pay $130,000 to the actress, known as Stormy Daniels, in exchange for her silence about an affair she said the two had in 2006.
Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen paid Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, through a shell company before being reimbursed by Trump, whose company, the Trump Organization, logged the reimbursements as legal expenses.
Jeffrey A. Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas said, “the number of times in my professional life where I’ve had to rethink the word unprecedented continues to grow.”
“But I also think that we should remember that the next shoes that are going to drop are likely to be much bigger,” Engel said of Trump,
Trump, 76, is also facing investigations into his alleged role in the US Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, and his efforts to overturn his loss in the state of Georgia in the 2020 election.
The indictment is for “something that happened before he was president,” Engel said.
“The subsequent legal cases that Donald Trump has before him are of far greater public significance because they are cases that took place when he was in office,” Engel said, referring to the case in Georgia and the Jan. 6 investigation by the Justice Department.
“A president who is indicted for times when he is a private citizen, which Donald Trump was in 2016 before the election, are less significant to the fate of our democracy than indictments that might stem from when the president was in office,” Engel said.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing. He has announced he is running for the Republican nomination in 2024.
He will now have to negotiate with prosecutors for a time to turn himself in, Engel said. “That is going to be an absolute spectacle,” he said. “It’s going to be astounding to see a man with Secret Service protection get fingerprinted.”
Rosanna Cavallaro, a professor at Suffolk University Law School, said not only is the indictment against a former president unprecedented but “it’s in response to conduct that itself is unprecedented.”
“It means everyone is judged based on the same rules of conduct,” Cavallaro said.
“The charges are quite mundane,” Cavallaro said. “You can’t write checks on the Trump Organization’s bank account and say it’s for legal expenses.”
What boosts the charges from a misdemeanor to a felony is proof that fraudulent business expenses were used to conceal another crime, Cavallaro said.
Prosecutors’ next challenge will be proving that “this was done with a view of helping his presidential campaign,” she said.
“The expenses were a kind of contribution to his campaign,” Cavallaro said. “The value of not being exposed was to increase his chances of being elected during the final weeks of a presidential campaign.”
Daniels “realized the value of her story in the context of the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape when everyone was kind of stunned and questioning his candidacy,” Cavallaro said.
Next steps will require that Trump present himself to be charged, get fingerprinted, and have a mugshot taken. He’ll have to formally face his charges at an arraignment hearing where a judge will decide if there is a need for bail, Cavallaro said.
It will be interesting to see if Trump gets handcuffed in the process, Cavallaro said.
“That’s part of the ritual of demonstrating that you’re submitting to the authority of the court,” she said.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.