Stormy Daniels, Donald Trump and Michael Cohen. (Photo illustration: Kelli R. Grant/Yahoo News; photos: JC Olivera/Getty Images, AP, Mary Altaffer/AP)
After nearly five years, the Manhattan district attorney’s investigation into former President Donald Trump’s role in a payment to porn star Stormy Daniels on the eve of the 2016 election appears headed to an indictment.
On Wednesday, Daniels met with prosecutors while Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime fixer turned adversary, testified behind closed doors before the grand jury examining the potential case. Cohen also testified Monday.
“I feel great,” Cohen told reporters Wednesday as he entered the district attorney’s office.
Daniels’s lawyer, Clark Brewster, tweeted that she had met with and answered questions from prosecutors and was willing to be a witness.
Last week, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who is leading the probe, invited Trump to testify before the grand jury — a move that legal experts say suggests an indictment is imminent.
If Trump were indicted, he would be the first former U.S. president ever to be charged with a crime.
Here’s everything we know about Cohen’s testimony and the potential indictment.
The hush money sagaDaniels departs federal court in Manhattan in April 2018. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Prosecutors in New York have spent nearly five years looking into a $130,000 payment that Cohen made in October 2016 to Daniels, who said she’d had an affair with Trump. Cohen said he was directed by Trump to pay her and that he was reimbursed by the president after he took office.
Cohen said the Trump Organization paid him $420,000 to reimburse him for the payment to Daniels and to cover bonuses and other supposed expenses. The company classified those payments internally as legal expenses.
Cohen was later sentenced to three years in federal prison for orchestrating payments to Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal (who also said she’d had an affair with Trump), as well as for lying to Congress.
Trump has denied the affairs, and initially denied knowing anything about the so-called hush money payments.
The Justice Department dropped its investigation of Trump in 2018, but the district attorney’s office has been probing whether the payment to Daniels amounted to an illegal campaign contribution, coming just days before voters headed to the polls to decide that year’s presidential election.
Under New York law, falsifying business records can be considered a misdemeanor — or a felony if it is done in connection with a more serious crime. It’s unclear whether the district attorney has uncovered evidence that would result in felony charges.
The state of the investigationCohen speaks with reporters before his grand jury testimony on Wednesday. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
Last week, the New York Times reported that Bragg had informed the former president’s lawyers of his right to testify before the grand jury that has been hearing evidence about his role in the payment to Daniels.
Under New York law, potential targets of investigations are given the chance to appear before the grand jury hearing evidence, though they rarely choose to do so. Legal experts say such an offer usually means charges will follow.
“The invitation should mean the prosecutor is preparing to seek criminal charges,” Marc Scholl, a former prosecutor in the Manhattan DA’s office, told Reuters.
Other former Trump associates, including his senior adviser Kellyanne Conway and ex-strategic director of communications Hope Hicks, were seen entering Bragg’s Manhattan office last week, CBS News reported.
And as the Times pointed out, it would be unusual for the district attorney to “notify a potential defendant without ultimately seeking charges against him.”
The chances of a convictionCohen exits a New York courthouse on March 10. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
If Bragg does move forward with an indictment, legal experts say it’s an indication that he believes there’s a good chance of convicting Trump.
“If you’re gonna drag somebody through this, you think there’s a likelihood of conviction,” Richard Serafini, a former senior defense attorney with the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, told Yahoo News. “I would tend to think that certainly applies in a case like this, with a former president. So my guess is that if they’re gonna indict, they have a feeling of relative confidence that they can sustain the indictment with a conviction.”
One major hurdle in a potential case against Trump is that Cohen, Bragg’s star witness, is a convicted liar with a documented vendetta.
“The issue with him is credibility and honesty,” Robert Sanders, senior lecturer at the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice at the University of New Haven and a former federal criminal prosecutor, told Yahoo News. “He’s already been convicted of being a perjurer. He’s lied in the past in legal proceedings, and he has a singular focus on Trump. That’s something that the jury, any jury, is going to have to take into consideration. And the issue is whether they think he’s honest enough at the time he testifies before them to accept his version of the facts over what the defense and Trump’s lawyers will try to present.”
“Anytime you’re using someone, you know, who is a convicted felon, that’s problematic for the government,” Serafini said. “Prosecutors like to have corroboration of what the individual is saying. And so we’ll see what New York has in terms of corroboration.”
What is Cohen saying?Cohen arrives to testify before the grand jury on Wednesday. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
Arriving for his closed-door testimony at the Manhattan district attorney’s office Monday, Cohen said he was “a little twisted, to be honest, inside,” but that his goal was “to tell the truth.”
Cohen, who served for more than a decade as Trump’s lawyer and fixer before his 2018 conviction, dismissed the idea that he is out to get his former boss.
“This is not revenge,” he said. “This is all about accountability. He needs to be held accountable for his dirty deeds.”
In an appearance on CNN Thursday morning, Cohen said, “I know it sounds hokey, but my goal is to ensure truth comes out, and that truth to power is told.”
He declined to discuss details of his testimony to the grand jury but said, “I’m prepared to tell you they have a tremendous amount of information.”
What about Trump and his lawyers?Trump departs Trump Tower in New York City in August 2022. (David “Dee” Delgado/Reuters)
The former president and his attorneys have tried to paint him as the victim of “extortion,” and Bragg as a political operative, while refusing to cooperate with the investigation.
In a series of posts over the past week on Truth Social, his social media platform, the former president denied having an affair with Daniels, insulted her appearance and likened the DA’s investigation to the Russia and Ukraine inquiries that hung over his presidency.
“It is a weaponization of our judicial system,” Trump said on March 9.
On Thursday, following Cohen’s testimony, Trump took aim at his former fixer. “Does anybody believe that SleazeBag disbarred lawyer Michael Cohen went before a Grand Jury yesterday, and did little but talk about it today? You’re not allowed to do that,” he wrote. “Cohen has no credibility at any level – A Total Loser!”
Earlier this week, Joe Tacopina, one of Trump’s current lawyers, said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that the former president will not appear before the grand jury, and that his legal team recently met privately with prosecutors to make their case against an indictment.
What about the other cases against Trump?Fulton County, Ga., District Attorney Fani Willis at a hearing in Atlanta on Jan. 24. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
The possible indictment in New York is not the only one the former president is currently facing.
In Georgia, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is investigating whether Trump interfered in the 2020 election. A special grand jury report that was partially unsealed last month stated that a majority of the panel believed perjury may have been committed by one or more witnesses who testified before it. And Yahoo News reported that prosecutors could bring charges against Trump and his associates within the next few months, possibly by May.
The former president framed the probes in New York and Georgia in an all-caps missive on Truth Social: “THE FAKE INVESTIGATIONS BY RADICAL LEFT DEMOCRAT PROSECUTORS ARE NOTHING OTHER THAN ELECTION INTERFERENCE INTO THE POLITICS OF A FAILING NATION. MAGA!!!”
Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., a special counsel appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland is scrutinizing Trump’s role in inciting the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn the election results, as well as his handling of classified documents that were uncovered at his Mar-a-Lago estate last year and the possible obstruction of efforts to retrieve them.
What’s next?Trump at a campaign rally in Davenport, Iowa, on Monday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
With district attorneys in New York and Georgia poised to issue indictments, Trump could likely be the first ex-president to be charged with a crime. He could also be the first major political candidate to be indicted during a presidential race.
In November, he formally announced his bid for the 2024 Republican nomination — an early entrance that was seen by some as a move to get ahead of any potential criminal indictments.
If Trump were to be indicted, it would trigger a contentious political debate around the legal and ethical issues of charging a leading political candidate, not to mention an ex-president, with a crime.
And it remains unclear whether an indictment would actually hurt him politically.
“After years of sowing doubt and disinformation about any institution that investigated or stood against him,” Politico’s Playbook noted, “it is possible that any charges could have something of a ‘rally around the flag’ effect with his core supporters.”
And as Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor in Southern California, recently told Yahoo News, “A lot of his supporters will see it as politically motivated, no matter what.”