Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images
In a matter of days, a grand jury in Manhattan could turn the 2024 campaign on its head by making Donald Trump the first former president in U.S. history to face criminal charges.
Why it matters: The state investigation into Trump's alleged hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels in 2016 may be the tip of the spear when it comes to the many legal threats bearing down on the former president — the front-runner for the 2024 GOP nomination.
- An Atlanta-based prosecutor is close to a charging decision in her investigation of Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia.
- Special counsel Jack Smith is tightening the screws in his federal probes of Trump's role in Jan. 6 and his handling of classified information.
But moving first in such a sensitive situation carries enormous risks for a prosecutor — and legal experts have raised questions about the strength of the case being assembled by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.
Zoom in: Former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, who testified Monday and Wednesday before the Manhattan grand jury, pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance violations in 2018 for arranging payments to two women with whom Trump allegedly had affairs, including Daniels.
- Cohen has said he did so at Trump's direction and was reimbursed with what the Trump Organization categorized as "legal expenses." Trump denies having an affair with Daniels and says he was a victim of extortion.
- If Bragg seeks felony charges against Trump, he likely would have to prove that the then-presidential candidate falsified business records to cover up another crime — in this case, Cohen's campaign finance violations.
Reality check: Former Manhattan prosecutor Mark Pomerantz warned in his new book that if Bragg chooses to pursue that complex strategy, there is "a big risk that felony charges would be dismissed before a jury could even consider them."
Driving the news: Trump defense lawyer Joe Tacopina on Tuesday essentially dared Bragg to pursue charges.
- "[I]f they bring this case, I believe this will catapult him into the White House," Tacopina said on MSNBC, his latest in a string of media appearances after the New York Times reported that Trump is likely to face charges soon.
- Trump has promised to stay in the race if he's indicted, telling reporters ahead of his CPAC speech this month: "I wouldn't even think about leaving. Probably it will enhance my numbers."
- He has a point: Polls suggest Trump received a boost among Republican voters after the FBI's search for classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, and after his first and second impeachments.
The big picture: Victimhood and vengeance already are central themes of Trump's 2024 campaign. He has cast any and all investigations — even civil lawsuits — as a continuation of a "witch hunt" that he says began with the FBI investigation of his 2016 campaign's ties to Russia.
- Republicans of all stripes — including his chief rival, Florida Gov. Ron DesSantis — quickly rallied around Trump after the FBI's Mar-a-Lago search last August, which also produced a surge in fundraising.
- Charges from a Democratic prosecutor — let alone the Justice Department — could put a freeze on GOP infighting and reinvigorate support for Trump from disenchanted conservative media such as Fox News.
The bottom line: There's no telling how an indicted Trump would fare in a general election if he gets through "the prosecution primary," as Vice News has dubbed it. Either way, the U.S. political system is set to enter uncharted waters in the coming months.
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