New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg's latest moves suggest prosecutors are nearing a decision about charging former President Trump in connection with a $130,000 hush payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 presidential election.
The Manhattan district attorney's office this week escalated the fight by empaneling another grand jury in the case and presenting witnesses.
Legal experts and a former colleague of Bragg's said the Democratic attorney's actions indicate prosecutors are edging closer to possible charges against Trump.
"If they actually are presenting witnesses, the first thing I said is, 'Oh, this is real. They're going for it,'" said Catherine Christian, a former financial fraud prosecutor in Bragg's office who was not involved in the investigation.
Trump has downplayed the development in a series of Truth Social posts, arguing Bragg should focus on fighting crime in New York.
The former president painted the investigation as a witch hunt and warned about statutes of limitations, referring to the time window in which prosecutors can bring charges.
"Some Radical Left crazies, coupled with 'ratings crushed' and failing Fake News, are trying to get [Bragg] to go the prosecutorial misconduct route, and take on certain very weak cases which are dead anyway based on the Statute of Limitations. FIGHT VIOLENT CRIME!" Trump posted on Wednesday.
Trump attorney Ronald Fischetti and Bragg spokeswoman Danielle Filson did not return requests for comment for this story.
The controversy surrounding Trump and Daniels began when Trump's longtime personal attorney, Michael Cohen, made a $130,000 payment to Daniels in October 2016 to stop her from publicly alleging she had an affair with Trump. Trump has denied the affair.
Cohen later pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance violations. He claimed that Trump directed him to make the payment and that Trump reimbursed him in monthly installments that included a bonus, even presenting one of the purported checks to lawmakers at a 2019 committee hearing.
Bragg could attempt to bring state charges of falsifying business records against the former president if prosecutors can show that Trump, with an intent to defraud, was personally involved in unlawfully designating Cohen's reimbursements a legal expense.
That misdemeanor would carry up to a year in jail, but a felony version of the crime could carry up to four years.
For prosecutors to pursue the charge, they would additionally need to show the fraud included an intent to commit another crime.
Legal experts suggest that could involve breaking state campaign finance or tax laws, but they questioned if a federal campaign finance violation would suffice.
Prosecutors would also need to grapple with the five-year statute of limitations on most New York felonies. Many known allegations involve transactions in 2016 and 2017.
Christian insisted Bragg wouldn't have moved forward with the grand jury if he was too late, suggesting a legal doctrine might be in play that allows prosecutors to bring charges after the deadline in certain circumstances, known as tolling.
"I assume - these are very competent people - they found a reason why it was tolled in this case, possibly because he's been out of the jurisdiction," said Christian, who is now a partner at Liston Abramson.
If the case gets to the merits, proving either charge could also heavily rely on the testimony of Cohen, a convicted felon.
"I do think Michael Cohen comes with some credibility, given his current track record of cooperation. But we'll see. He'll definitely be attacked," said William "Widge" Devaney, a former assistant U.S. attorney in New Jersey who is now a partner at Baker & McKenzie.
Cohen said on Wednesday that he recently spoke to Bragg's office and provided his cellphone, describing it as a "reinvigorated" investigation.
"I've said all along that I thought the DA's case is by far the simplest to prove, and it is the most destructive to Donald Trump individually, and to his business as well," Cohen told CNN's Don Lemon. "I do believe that he will see repercussions for the first time in almost his entire life."
The grand jury could also end without bringing any charges, as did one earlier in the investigation.
Cyrus Vance Jr., Bragg's predecessor and the one who began the probe, convened a previous grand jury as the investigation expanded from the hush payment to an additional prong of whether Trump and his businesses unlawfully manipulated asset values for tax and loan benefits.
After Bragg took over, that grand jury expired without levying any charges against the former president.
At the time, the investigation seemed to lose steam. Two top prosecutors who expressed a desire to charge Trump resigned, indicating that Bragg had stopped pursuing the indictment.
In the months since, Bragg has secured convictions for the Trump Organization and its former chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, on charges related to executive perks.
Now, the hush payment and the president himself have reemerged as a focus in just one of multiple legal battles involving the former president. Trump could become the first former president to face an indictment.
Federal investigations into the mishandling of classified records at Mar-a-Lago and efforts to block the 2020 transition of power also continue. A district attorney in Georgia is investigating Trump's actions following the 2020 election, and the New York attorney general is also pursuing a civil lawsuit against the former president.
"On one level, I think Bragg doesn't want to be left out of the party if there are going to be additional criminal charges brought against Trump," said Devaney.
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