Court officials didn’t take a mug shot of former President Donald J. Trump at his arraignment on Tuesday. But it’s not because he didn’t want one. The authorities didn’t really need an ID photo of one of the most recognizable faces on earth.
Mr. Trump wanted that mug shot, CNN reported, and when he didn’t get it, his presidential campaign put a fake one on a fund-raising T-shirt. He wanted it for the same reason he brought his private videographer from Florida to the courthouse: to contrive physical relics of his martyrdom at the hands of his leftist oppressors, proof of the vast conspiracy that he can wave at rallies and blare on his social media platform.
But a few things happened on Tuesday that Mr. Trump didn’t count on. The images — and the details of the case itself — sent a far more serious message than he expected.
Instead of a defiant N.Y.P.D. photo or a raised fist, the lasting image of the day may well be that of a humbled former president looking hunched, angry and nervous at the courtroom defense table, a suddenly small man wedged between his lawyers, as two New York State court officers loomed behind him in a required posture of making sure the defendant stayed in his place.
And the 34 felony charges, to which Mr. Trump pleaded not guilty, turned out to be more significant and more sweeping than previously suspected. The Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, described a broad conspiracy, with Mr. Trump at the center, to falsify business records for the purpose of unlawfully influencing the 2016 presidential election. The former president, he said, “orchestrated a scheme with others to influence the 2016 presidential election by identifying and purchasing negative information about him to suppress its publication and benefit the defendant’s electoral prospects.”
It’s been known for a while that the case revolved around hush-money payments that Mr. Trump made to a porn star, Stormy Daniels, to cover up an affair they had. Falsifying business records can sometimes be charged as a misdemeanor in New York State, and to bump up the charges to felonies requires proof that they were falsified to conceal another crime. That crime was widely believed to be a federal campaign finance violation, and some legal experts described that combination as an untested legal theory, because federal violations are outside Mr. Bragg’s jurisdiction.
But it turned out that Mr. Bragg and the grand jury had more than one basis for making the charges felonies. The prosecutor argued on Tuesday that in addition to the federal campaign finance violations, Mr. Trump violated a state election law that makes it a crime to prevent any person from being elected to public office by unlawful means while acting in a conspiracy with others. Mr. Bragg is on much safer ground tying fraudulent business records to a violation of state law, because the defense cannot argue that he lacks jurisdiction on the matter — though Mr. Trump’s lawyers can still argue that state law doesn’t apply to a federal election.
And that wasn’t the only state law that Mr. Bragg said he would cite. The payments to Ms. Daniels were made by Mr. Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen, who was reimbursed by Mr. Trump in a fraudulent way, the prosecution said. The charging document said this reimbursement was illegally disguised as income in a way that “mischaracterized, for tax purposes, the true nature of the payments made in furtherance of the scheme.” So add state tax violations to the list.
The charges also revealed the breadth of Mr. Bragg’s case, showing he intends to persuade a jury of a conspiracy that extended from Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen to David Pecker, a former publisher of The National Enquirer, who was allegedly paid $150,000 by Mr. Trump to procure the silence of a second woman with whom Mr. Trump had an affair, the former Playboy model Karen McDougal. It was not certain until Tuesday that the relationship with Ms. McDougal would be part of the case. The felony charges are specifically about Ms. Daniels, but to prove them, Mr. Bragg made it clear that he would describe a much broader pattern of payoffs that included Ms. McDougal.
Prosecutors also revealed that they would rely on more than just the oral testimony of their star witness, Mr. Cohen, who already served a year in state prison for his role in the payments and whose credibility will be challenged. There will, for example, be an audio recording of Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen discussing how exactly the payment to Ms. McDougal should be made to The National Enquirer’s parent company. And the evidence will also include texts and email messages discussing Mr. Trump’s suggestion to delay paying Ms. Daniels until after the election, “because at that point it would not matter if the story became public,” prosecutors said. (Those texts may effectively short-circuit any attempt by Mr. Trump to claim the payments were made solely to prevent his wife from learning about his affairs.)
Mr. Bragg will have to prove all these charges in court, of course, assuming the case goes to trial, and the charging documents did not reveal more than the surface of the evidence he plans to use. It’s still not a slam-dunk case. But these crimes are hardly novel ones for the Manhattan district attorney’s office, which is used to prosecuting business record cases, and are far from the one-off political persecution that Republicans are claiming it to be.
Inevitably, the images of the day and the details of the charges will have a cumulative and wearying effect on many voters. Mr. Trump thinks only of his core supporters, who will share his rage at his ordeal on Tuesday and demand revenge. But there aren’t enough base Trump voters to guarantee him even the Republican nomination, let alone the general election in 2024. Will the images of Mr. Trump at a defendant’s table, not to mention the headlines about 34 counts of paying hush money to a porn star, win a substantial number of swing voters to his side?
It’s hard to imagine all of this will really do him any good, particularly if there are charges down the road from other prosecutors alleging abuse of his presidential office. Mr. Trump may sell a few fake T-shirts, but with the law closing in on him, he will have a much harder time selling himself.
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