Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, has insisted that he does not pay attention to politics when deciding whether to charge someone with a crime.
But Bragg’s stated reluctance to consider the political ramifications of his office’s decisions has not quelled the storm brewing around him: He has become the first prosecutor to indict a former president.
Charging former president Donald Trump in connection with a hush-money payment to a porn actress will catapult Bragg onto the national stage. Already he faces second-guessing, even from putative allies, about the strength of the case and the wisdom of bringing it. And Trump, who has denied all wrongdoing, has begun attacking Bragg, a Democrat, as the latest in a string of politically motivated prosecutors determined to bring him down. The former president has marshaled the support of his Republican allies in Congress and beyond.
It is unlikely that Bragg entered the race for district attorney expecting to indict Trump. When he announced his campaign in June 2019, there was little sign that the office’s then-dormant investigation would lead to criminal charges. And Bragg, 49, who has lived in New York nearly his entire life, had a vision for the office that had nothing to do with the president.
But the Trump question came to dominate the Democratic primary as the race entered its final stretch in 2021. As the district attorney’s investigation against the former president began to heat up, Bragg and his opponents started to signal to prospective voters they had the bona fides to lead a potential prosecution of Trump.
Bragg had some history to draw on. In 2017 and 2018 he served as a senior official in the New York attorney general’s office, which at the time brought a bevy of lawsuits against Trump’s administration. One of them, filed in June 2018, accused the Donald J. Trump Foundation and the Trump family of “a shocking pattern of illegality.” That lawsuit was successful, leading to the foundation’s dissolution.
Still, as a candidate, Bragg was mostly focused elsewhere. His fundamental campaign promise was to balance public safety and fairness, following in the footsteps of a wave of recently elected prosecutors who pledged a new approach to crime. They argued that cracking down on minor infractions only led to recidivism, and that taking a more merciful approach to defendants made cities safer.
“When you look at who he defined himself to be, it wasn’t about Trump. It was an approach to the justice system that was fair, balanced and equitable,” said Kim Foxx, the state’s attorney of Cook County, Ill., which includes Chicago, who campaigned on a platform similar to that of Bragg.
When Bragg took office, and his prosecutors were presenting evidence about Trump and his businesses to a grand jury, the new district attorney stopped them, concerned that the case, which centered on whether Trump fraudulently inflated the value of his properties, was not strong enough to move forward. The public backlash was swift.
In much the way that Trump shifted the conversation in Bragg’s campaign, the former president has shifted the focus of the district attorney’s administration. And Bragg will likely find that his tenure is now intertwined with the former president.