Legal experts say Trump’s felony charges will be hard to prove

The Manhattan District Attorney released on Tuesday an unsealed indictment of 34 counts against former President Donald Trump for his alleged role in efforts to bury damaging stories about his personal life ahead of the 2016 presidential election, accusing him of participating in a “capture and kill program lasting years to propel his rise to the White House.

THE charge, the first to accuse a sitting president or former U.S. president of a crime, and an accompanying statement of facts accused Trump of illegally falsifying business records to conceal silent payments to people who claimed to have negative stories about him, including adult film star Stormy Daniels, who claimed to have had an extramarital affair with the former president. Trump denied having an affair with Daniels or another woman who was paid for his silence.

Trump pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to the charges in Manhattan Criminal Court after he was booked and fingerprinted. Trump was quickly released, as is the norm for defendants charged with nonviolent crimes.

While the indictment against a former president is an extraordinary development in US history, legal experts have noted that Trump’s conviction is far from certain, saying it won’t be easy. for Manhattan prosecutors to prove that the former president committed a crime.

Falsification of business records is generally a misdemeanor under New York State law. But it can be turned into a low-level crime if the prosecution can show that the accused committed the offense with the intent to commit or conceal another crime. The 34 counts unveiled Tuesday by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg were all crimes charges, with prosecutors saying the former president also violated unspecified election laws.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg speaks after former President Donald Trump was arraigned at the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse on April 4, 2023.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg speaks after former President Donald Trump was arraigned at the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse on April 4, 2023.


Randy Zelin, a Cornell Law School professor who previously worked as a white-collar defense attorney and attorney, said Bragg could face significant hurdles in convincing a jury that Trump intended to commit or cover up. another crime when he allegedly falsified business records to conceal hush money. Payments.

“I think it’s going to be tough to prevail on the crimes,” Zelin told CBS News. “The offense of tampering with entries – it’s a slam dunk.”

Jessica Levinson, a CBS News legal analyst and professor at Loyola Law School, said it appears Manhattan prosecutors have a “very strong case” for claiming false trade entries were made as part of the strategy. “catch and kill” to suppress negative stories about Trump. . But she agreed that it would be more difficult to link this alleged offense to violations of election laws or other crimes.

“Unless you have irrefutable proof, showing intent to commit another crime can always be a challenge,” she said.

Still, Levinson said Bragg’s case doesn’t hinge solely on accounts from former Trump “fixer” Michael Cohen, who she says could be called an unreliable source. Cohen, who said he made a silent payment of $130,000 to Daniels in 2016 on the former president’s behalf, served time in federal prison after pleading guilty to tax evasion and campaign finance violations. .

“It’s up to David Pecker,” Levinson said, referring to the former CEO of America Media, Inc., who allegedly worked with Cohen and Trump to buy and kill negative stories about Trump. “And I think it depends on other people in the Trump organization who actually helped him make those payments.”

John Coffee, a Columbia University professor who studies white-collar crime, said Trump’s lawyers would likely seek to dismiss the case and move the venue to another jurisdiction. Trump’s lawyers, Coffee said, could argue the case should be dropped because prosecutors have failed to show enough that the former president falsified records to cover up another crime.

“I think they have strong evidence that false documents were filed for the misdemeanor, but I don’t understand what they are claiming to be the federal offense or the state offense that was covered up,” he said. Coffee told CBS News.

Cornell University professor Zelin said Trump’s legal team’s main argument may be that the silent payments were made to protect his family, not to influence the outcome of the 2016 election.

Trump could argue, “I was just trying to be a good husband and a good father. I was trying to keep that out of the press,” Zelin said.

But Levinson said that argument could be undermined by evidence that Trump, Cohen, Pecker and others met to bury negative stories about the former president to insulate his presidential bid from political attacks and scandal.

“All of the allegations point to the idea that some people sat down and said, ‘Let’s make sure we take these stories down because we don’t want them out to voters,'” Levinson added.

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