April 15, 2024

For most people, being implicated in a crime would represent the scandal of a lifetime. Especially if it’s connected to the unprecedented arrest of a former US president.

For Donald Trump, this wasn’t even the scandal of the weekend.

The trail leading to Tuesday’s history-making indictment began on the gob-smackingly eventful second weekend of October 2016.

His presidential campaign was updated by an old video in which he crudely joked about grabbing women’s genitals.

That same day, WikiLeaks begin releasing hacked emails from the Clinton campaign, in a chain of events that led to Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

That’s when Stormy Daniels quietly tiptoed into American history.

The porn star planned to go public with her past fling with Trump, at this politically vulnerable moment for him. That very weekend, Trump’s fixer started working on a $130,000 US payment to buy her silence.

What happened next is key, according to the statement of facts released by New York City prosecutors: Trump tried delaying the payment, until after the November election, so that it wouldn’t hurt his presidential bid.

After the campaign Trump wrote a series of checks, refunding his fixer, Michael Cohen, for payments through a shell company. With the election safely over, another woman, a Playboy model, and a rumor-peddling doorman were released from non-disclosure agreements.

Two crowds shouting at each other.  They are standing several meters apart.  Metal barriers are keeping Trump supporters and Trump opponents apart.
Pro- and anti-Trump protesters heckled each other in front of the Manhattan courthouse, where they were kept separate from each other Tuesday. (Amanda Perobelli/Reuters)

Why that 2016 timeline is key to the Trump case

Here’s why those details are relevant.

Convicting Trump on these charges, 34 counts of falsifying business records, rests upon proving that those fake records hid an earlier, underlying crime.

New York prosecutor Alvin Bragg spelled out Tuesday the underlying crimes he sees as foundational to his case, and two are election-related.

One is New York State law 17-152 against promoting a candidacy through unlawful means. The other is the federal limit against campaign donations above $2,700.

Bragg’s accusation, in a nutshell: Trump created a false paper trail to hide facts from voters, and he did so in violation of those two election laws, which made it a crime.

He’ll be asking a judge, and likely a jury, to overlook the fact that Trump was never actually charged with violating either of those two election laws.

Does this warrant the first-ever prosecution of a former US president in the 234 years of the American republic? Depends who you ask.

“The rule of law died in this country,” Trump lawyer Joe Tacopina told reporters outside the courthouse.

“If this man’s name was not Donald J. Trump, there’s no scenario we’d all be here today.”

He’s far from alone in that criticism.

A person depicting Trump in an orange prison costume waves outside the Manhattan courthouse on Tuesday.
A person depicting Trump in an orange prison costume waves outside the Manhattan courthouse on Tuesday. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Those expressing doubts about this case extend well beyond Trump’s admirers and include detractors like Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, who criticized these charges as overreach.

So did election-law scholar Rick Hasenwho called it a legal and political error.

So did Trump’s former aide and current nemesis John Bolton, who told CNN: “This [case] is even weaker than I feared it would be.”

But as we learned on that one head-spinning weekend in October 2016, when it comes to Trump scandals, sometimes, what’s in public view is the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Trump is encircled by legal threats.

They include the 2020 election aftermath; the Jan. 6 attacks; mishandled classified documents; obstruction of justice, and these cases are swirling around in Washington, DC, and Atlanta.

It’s telling that Trump spent more time in a Mar-A-Lago speech late Tuesday complaining about other cases, besides the Stormy Daniels one.

“This [Stormy Daniels case] is probably the least of Trump’s worries,” said Juan-Carlos Planas, a former Republican state lawmaker in Florida, and state prosecutor, who is now a Democrat and a lawyer specializing in elections.

Donald Trump, with a blank expression, surrounded by men in suits and by police officers.
Former US President Donald Trump arrives at the Manhattan courthouse Tuesday to hear the criminal charges against him. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Prediction: This case opens the floodgates

Planas said he believes the charges against Trump are solid, but the case will hinge on whether Trump wins procedural arguments, like whether the statute of limitations has lapsed. The limit is five years but it can be extendedunder pandemic rules and also for New Yorkers residing out of state.

A former New York prosecutor and current law professor, Bennett Gershman, concurs with Planas on three points.

No, he says, the hush-money case isn’t the strongest against Trump. Yes, it’s capable of earning a conviction. And, finally, in his view, this is just the start.

“[The New York case] broke the dam,” Gershman told CBC News.

“The floodgates are now open. … It’s probably not going to be the biggest case of all, several months from now.”

A white T-shirt with a false black and white mug shot of Donald Trump with the words 'Not Guilty' written on it.
Trump fought against cameras in the courtroom. No mug shot was released. But his campaign began selling T-shirts with mock images of a mug shot for $47. (CBC News)

Legal threats mounting on multiple fronts

Just look at the miserable legal news raining on Trump all week.

That includes the case of whether Trump unlawfully took classified documents with him after he left the White House, then obstructed federal efforts to get them back.

The Washington Post reports federal authorities have evidence Trump faces greater legal peril in the documents case than publicly reported; that Trump personally examined boxes, seeking to hold on to some material, then told aides to mislead authorities by claiming everything was returned.

Fox News reports Trump’s Secret Service agents have been ordered to testify Friday in that Washington, DC,-based investigation.

Then there’s Georgia.

Trump is being questioned for trying to overturn the 2020 election. That includes a January 2021 phone call where he asked a state official to find another 11,000-plus votes for him, plus his effort to name an alternate electoral college slate.

The grand jury forewoman has been granted multiple media interviews – an ill-advised decision, perhaps. In them, she revealed that her team recommended a long list of indictments.

That’s now in the hands of Fulton County’s district attorney.

Then there’s the special counsel in Washington, Jack Smith. He’s investigating two cases: Mishandled classified documents, and the lead-up to January 6.

Cartoon of Trump behind bars, on a protest sign being held up by a woman in sunglasses who is also carrying an American flag.
People demonstrated outside the Manhattan courthouse on Tuesday, among the group of Trump opponents celebrating his arrest. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Capping off a bad stretch of legal news, Trump lost a bid in Federal Court to keep his former aides from testing in the Jan. 6 probes.

The good news for Trump is that he’s still easily the front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination, with a daunting advantage in early polls.

‘So what? He slept with a porn star!’

The passion of supporters was on display in the streets of New York City.

Vito DiChiara, a former employee at Fox News, came in from his home on Long Island to show his support for the former president.

He called the charges a case of 2024 election interference from Democrats: “They are afraid of Donald Trump.”

Mary Muldoon asked rhetorically what the big deal was: “So what? He slept with a porn star – he doesn’t want his wife to know!”

Woman in sunglasses shouting into a megaphone.
Republican lawmaker Marjorie Taylor Greene joined a pro-Trump protest in New York City on Tuesday. There was a noisy counter-protest and it didn’t last long. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)

She suggested this was no worse than the congressmen who had spent millions of taxpayers’ money over the decades to settle various sexual harassment and other workplace incidents in Congress.

She’s right – such incidents happened. But neither she, nor we, know if this is the end of Trump’s legal troubles, or just the beginning.

Trump survived the scandals from that fateful weekend in October 2016; first, the Access Hollywood tape, then the Russian probe.

Sometimes though, there are surprises looming, like Stormy Daniels, waiting in the wings, about to kick onto history’s stage.

-With files from Katie Simpson in New York

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