WASHINGTON — A Manhattan grand jury on Thursday voted to indict former president Donald Trump in connection with an alleged hush money payment to a porn actress in the closing days of his 2016 presidential campaign, an unprecedented development in American history that could inject fresh controversy into his bid to reclaim his old job.
It was not immediately clear what the charges were. But the case, which is being prosecuted by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, relates to his 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, and then reimbursing him.
In a brief statement, Bragg’s office confirmed the indictment, but left many of the details unclear.
“This evening we contacted Mr. Trump’s attorney to coordinate his surrender to the Manhattan D.A.’s Office for arraignment on a (New York) Supreme Court indictment, which remains under seal,” said the statement from a spokesperson. The statement noted an arraignment date was yet to be selected.
Trump’s defense attorney Joe Tacopina said Thursday night that Trump is expected to be arraigned as early as Tuesday, Bloomberg reported.
Trump, who nearly two weeks ago called for people to protest what he said was an imminent arrest, issued a lengthy statement proclaiming his innocence and calling the indictment “political persecution and election interference at the highest level in history.”
He also made plain that he will continue his third bid for the presidency.
“I believe this Witch-Hunt will backfire massively on Joe Biden. The American people realize exactly what the Radical Left Democrats are doing here. Everyone can see it. So our Movement, and our Party — united and strong — will first defeat Alvin Bragg, and then we will defeat Joe Biden,” Trump said. “We are going to throw every last one of these Crooked Democrats out of office so we can MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
The rest of the Republican Party now must reckon with his place in a presidential primary — and there are signs that even those thinking of challenging him for the nomination will be hesitant to use the indictment as a cudgel against the former president due to the anger that could stir from his base.
On Thursday evening, former vice president Mike Pence told CNN Trump’s indictment “on a campaign finance issue is an outrage.”
“And it appears for millions of Americans to be nothing more than a political prosecution,” Pence, who is mulling his own presidential bid, said.
Mike Pompeo, a former secretary of state under Trump who is considering his own bid for the presidency, on Thursday issued a statement calling Bragg a “George Soros-funded district attorney,” referring to the Democratic donor who is a frequent target of the GOP.
Pompeo called on Bragg to “spend taxpayers’ money and your energy protecting law-abiding citizens and not playing politics.” The statement did not address the substance of the case.
Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, another possible presidential candidate, accused Bragg of weaponizing his office and pledged in a tweet not to extradite Trump to New York should that request be made of his office.
“The weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda turns the rule of law on its head. It is un-American,” DeSantis tweeted. “Florida will not assist in an extradition request given the questionable circumstances at issue with this Soros-backed Manhattan prosecutor and his political agenda.”
Still, DeSantis also took the opportunity to needle Trump when asked on March 20 about Trump’s initial claim that his arrest was imminent.
“I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair,” DeSantis said. “I just can’t speak to that.”
The indictment shatters a long-held American political norm. Trump is the first former president to be indicted. Richard Nixon, the president who arguably came the closest after he was found to have covered up evidence related to the Watergate break-in, was preemptively pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford.
And it may only be the first indictment, as there are multiple ongoing investigations into Trump’s handling of classified documents and his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential elections — cases that some legal experts believe could ultimately be stronger than the New York case.
It represents a sharp change of fortune for Trump, a figure who for years seemed to have mastered the art of eluding legal consequences related to his campaign finance and business practices even as multiple people in his orbit were charged — and in multiple cases convicted — of crimes. But it is not yet clear how it will affect his prospects in 2024. National leaders who have been indicted and even convicted have gone on to win elections in other democracies, including Brazil and Israel.
“If it looks like it’s a trumped-up charge . . . I’II think his base would say that’s just the deep state going after him again,” said David McIntosh, president of Club for Growth, in a February interview. “But if it’s a credible charge where the evidence is laid out and there’s clearly a violation of the law, then I think that would hurt him and help the other people in the race.”
That Trump would be charged at all is sure to anger his devout fan base, known for its willingness to turn a blind eye toward any of Trump’s faults. Indeed, Trump has led them to violence before, at the Capitol for the Jan. 6 insurrection, and fears of a similar scenario prompted law enforcement in Washington, D.C., and New York to bolster their defenses in the days after Trump’s March 18 claim.
Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, said in a statement that Trump’s fate would be determined in a court of law and urged calm from both sides of the spectrum.
“There should be no outside political influence, intimidation, or interference in the case,” Schumer said. “I encourage both Mr. Trump’s critics and supporters to let the process proceed peacefully and according to the law.”
It also tests the muscle memory of the rest of the Republicans, who spent years jumping immediately to his defense, scandal after scandal.
“I hate the thought of Republicans going after one another, but that’s up to the party,” said Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, where presidential hopefuls are already making the rounds, earlier in March, when asked whether she felt it would be fair game for Republican candidates to attack him over the indictment.
Still, there were signs much of the party would stick with him. Even before the indictment, there were calls from Republicans in Congress for Bragg to be put in jail and to testify.
Trump had previously depicted the investigations into him as deeply politicized and insisted that an indictment would not change his plans. Indeed, the possibility of a looming indictment was thought to be a key motivator of Trump’s decision to run for president a third time, because his status as a candidate who could potentially face President Biden in a general election makes the decision to charge him so politically delicate.
“I wouldn’t even think about leaving” the race, he told reporters at the Conservative Political Action Conference in early March, claiming that the indictment might actually spur more Republicans to rally to his side. “Probably it will enhance my numbers.”
He may have a point. After Trump’s Florida estate was raided last summer by federal agents seeking classified documents in an unrelated investigation, he blasted out fund-raising appeals and enjoyed a bump in the polls.
Senator Mitt Romney, a former presidential candidate and one of the few Republicans who voted to convict Trump when he was impeached, laughed when asked earlier this month whether an indictment would hinder Trump in the primary. “I don’t think it would have any impact at all, on his base,” he said.
Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood. Lissandra Villa Huerta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LissandraVilla.