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Charged in a case of secret payments before the 2016 election, Donald Trump pleaded not guilty on Tuesday before a New York judge. The point on the legal file of the former American president, the first in history to face criminal proceedings.
A doorman, a Playmate and a pornstar
According to court documents, Donald Trump is accused of having “orchestrated” payments to cover up three embarrassing cases before the 2016 presidential election:
- A Trump Tower doorman, who claimed to have evidence of a hidden child, received $30,000 in 2015 from a media group close to Donald Trump to keep the story exclusive to him, which was never published.
- In 2016, $150,000 was paid in the same context to a woman who claimed to have had an affair with the Republican candidate. His name does not appear in the proceedings, but a former Playmate, Karen McDougal, has since come out of silence.
- A few weeks before the election, Donald Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen paid a pornographic actress, Stormy Daniels, $ 130,000 to keep quiet about an alleged extramarital affair dating back to 2006.
Paying to buy someone’s silence is not illegal in itself. Donald Trump, who reimbursed Michael Cohen with several checks spread over the year 2017, however recorded these expenses as “legal fees” in the accounts of his company, the Trump Organization, whose headquarters is in New York. He therefore faces 34 charges for “falsification of accounting documents”, as well as fraudulent entries in this part of the case.
… punishable by 4 years in prison
In New York State, accounting falsifications are generally considered simple offenses, but they become misdemeanors, punishable by four years in prison, if they were committed to “cover up” another offense.
“And that’s exactly the heart of the case,” said prosecutor Alvin Bragg at a press conference, accusing Donald Trump of having “made 34 false statements” to hide the illegality of the means deployed to promote his candidacy in 2016. The prosecutor cited possible violations of federal and New York State campaign finance law.
“The idea is that the payments and the false declarations are part of a vast plan intended to undermine the democratic process”, by preventing voters from having all the information necessary for their choice, explains to AFP Bennett. Gershman, a former New York prosecutor and law professor at Pace University.
A trial in 2024?
During his appearance, Donald Trump pleaded not guilty and Judge Juan Merchan set January 2024 as the target for the start of his trial. But his lawyers will file “a slew of appeals,” predicts Michael Meltsner, a criminal law expert at Northeastern University who doesn’t expect to see Trump on trial anytime soon.
For Professor Gershman, the timetable will also depend on other investigations targeting Donald Trump. If he were to be indicted by federal justice for his role in the assault on the Capitol or his handling of the White House archives, or by Georgia justice for pressuring state election officials, Prosecutor Bragg could “step aside so that he responds to these more serious charges first”, according to this expert.
If a trial takes place, prosecutors will need to convince jurors that the falsification of accounts was part of a larger offense to secure a conviction. But “it could be difficult to prove that the accounting falsifications were made to influence the course of the election,” underlines Ellen Yaroshefsky, professor of law at Hofstra University.
His lawyer Joe Tacopina has already assured that he had paid Stormy Daniels to protect “his family and his young son” and that he would have done so even outside the election period.
This argument had been successfully deployed in the only comparable case, the experts point out. John Edwards, a candidate for the 2008 Democratic primary had been prosecuted by federal justice because his mistress had received nearly half a million dollars for not disclosing her pregnancy.
At the end of his trial in 2012, he was acquitted of one of the six charges brought against him and the jurors failed to reach a verdict on the other five. Prosecutors then dropped the case.