Beyond the Headlines: A Closer Look at the Charges Facing Donald Trump

Elections & Politics Policy Brief #72 | By: Arvind Salem | April 11, 2023

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Policy Summary

On March 30, 2023, after months of deliberation, a Manhattan grand jury indicted former President Donald Trump, making him the first president to be indicted, sending shockwaves throughout the United States. Given the politically charged and historical significance of this trial, discourse on the trial has understandably tended to focus more on its political implications and its larger ramifications on American democracy rather than on the many complex legal issues the trial features, the nature of the charges, and the events that ultimately led to this historical moment in American history.

The events that have led to this trial stretch all the way back to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. In the days leading up to the election, porn star Stormy Daniels wanted to go public with her story of an affair she had with Donald Trump. Stormy Daniels contacted the National Enquirer to sell the rights of the story. Instead of publishing the story, The National Enquirer brokered a deal between Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer at the time, and Stormy Daniels’s lawyers, resulting in Cohen paying $130,000 to silence Stormy Daniels. After Trump had won the election and became president, he reimbursed Michael Cohen, and when doing so, he allegedly improperly categorized his payments as a legal expense pursuant to a fictional retainer.

Beyond the Headlines: A Closer Look at the Charges Facing Donald Trump

Photo taken from: Kelly/Pool Photo via AP

Policy Analysis

The Manhattan District Attorney charged President Trump with 34 counts, or instances, of falsifying business records. Trump has pleaded not guilty on all counts. Falsifying business records is normally a misdemeanor charge, yet Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has upgraded the charges to felony, which can only be done if he can prove that Trump falsified business records in order to conceal another crime. The District Attorney did not state the other crime in the indictment, but when asked he noted several possible underlying crimes including illegally promoting a candidate, making false statements to tax authorities, and violating federal election contribution limits. However, citing federal election contribution regulations as a possibility for an underlying crime raises the question if a violation of a federal law can justify elevating a state misdemeanor to a state felony. The answer to this question is largely unknown, as it has not been resolved by any appellate court in New York. 

Another legal issue is the statute of limitations. The falsifying business records felony has a statute of limitations of 5 years, meaning that prosecutors have 5 years from the crime to initiate legal proceedings. Since Trump’s final payment to Cohen was in December 2017 the statute of limitations has expired. However, the statute of limitations can be paused when the defendant is “continuously outside the state.” Prosecutors will likely argue that Trump’s time as president from 2017-2021 represents a period when he was continuously outside the state, thus allowing them to pause the statute of limitations and prosecute Trump.

Beyond the Headlines: A Closer Look at the Charges Facing Donald Trump

Photo taken from: Raedle/Getty Images

An issue for Trump’s defense is that the trial is taking place in Manhattan: a liberal area, where Trump is quite unpopular. Trump has repeatedly stated that any trial in Manhattan would be unfair, and has suggested that the trial be moved to the far more conservative area of Staten Island. 

Regarding the actual outcome of the trial, it is the general consensus that Trump is extremely unlikely to spend any time in prison. Trump technically faces a maximum sentence of 136 years in prison, each count of the falsifying business records felony carries a maximum sentence of 4 years in prison, and the misdemeanor version carries 1 year per count, however, there is no mandatory minimum sentence, meaning that many other factors will play a role in sentencing. Many attorneys have said that a similarly situated defendant in their 70s, with no previous criminal history would not see the inside of a jail cell for a nonviolent Class E felony with no specific victims. However, others have argued that Cohen’s 13-month jail sentence for campaign finance violations in relation to the Stormy Daniels payment, tax fraud, and false bank statements, mean that prison time is not off of the table for the former president.

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Engagement Resources​

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act foramerica

Act for America is an organization that seeks to educate and mobilize Americans against foreign and domestic threats, and advocates for bills to achieve these aims. Those who feel that this indictment constitutes a breakdown of justice may wish to support this organization.

ActBlue Double the Donation Logo

ActBlue allows people to donate to a host of Democratic organizations, candidates, and causes. Readers are likely to find organizations that are supporting the Trump indictment on this site and may wish to donate money to further that cause.

Brennan Center

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School is an organization that promotes reforms to  American democracy and argues against many practices today such as gerrymandering and mass incarceration. Readers who are concerned about the health of democracy in light of this indictment may wish to support the Brennan Center and help it advance its proposed reforms.

WinRed logo

Winred allows people to donate money to Republican candidates to support their campaign. Readers interested in supporting President Trump or other members of the Republican party may find that this is a useful way to convey their support and help the Republican cause.

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