Never before has an American president been indicted on criminal charges after leaving office. But that could soon change. The New York Times reported Thursday that Donald Trump has been invited to testify before a grand jury next week, a strong sign that charges against him in the Stormy Daniels hush money investigation could be imminent. The case, if brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, would be extraordinarily complex, particularly because the potential defendant is the former president and current leader for the GOP nomination. But it would put Trump in the most significant legal jeopardy he’s ever faced, and potentially recast the 2024 race, which he says he’d continue to run in if charged.
“I did absolutely nothing wrong,” Trump said in a rambling statement late Thursday, describing Bragg’s inquiry as a “witch-hunt.”
Trump already is under several investigations, including those into his handling of classified documents and his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss to Joe Biden. The inquiry in question—which was opened by then-Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance—centers on the $130,000 former Trump fixer Michael Cohen paid to silence Daniels, an adult film actress who claims to have had an affair with Trump, during the final days of the 2016 campaign. Cohen—who pleaded guilty in 2018 to several charges, including making illegal payments at the behest of a political candidate—says Trump directed those payments and reimbursed him later. (Trump and his legal team, for their part, have denied the allegations).
In essence, prosecutors are investigating whether Trump’s actions may have constituted a felony, since his company not only apparently “falsely accounted” for its reimbursements to Cohen, but may have done so in furtherance of another crime: an illegal campaign contribution, considering Daniels’ silence helped Trump’s bid. It’s uncertain legal terrain, as the Times notes, which could make for a challenging case. More challenging still could be the unprecedented process of trying the former president, who has seemingly threatened political violence if prosecuted. “I think you’d have problems in this country, the likes of which perhaps we’ve never seen before,” Trump told the conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt last fall. “I don’t think the people of the United States would stand for it.”
Not only has Trump raised the specter of civil unrest; he has made clear he would “absolutely” continue his reelection bid, even if indicted. “I wouldn’t even think about leaving,” Trump told reporters last weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he delivered a dark, rambling speech that included digs against Bragg, his investigator. “It’s very bad for the country,” he added, though he suggested criminal prosecution could “enhance my numbers” with Republican voters.
Whether that’s true remains to be seen. Obviously, criminal investigations—let alone indictments—tend not to be good for political candidates. Trump’s mounting legal problems have already led a number of top Republicans to call for the party to move on from him. But Trump isn’t so much a politician as he is a cult figure, and it’s hard to imagine an indictment turning his base away from him—especially considering the way he’s primed them to view potential prosecution as a political persecution. “It is a weaponization of our judicial system,” Trump claimed in his angry statement Thursday. “I will not be deterred.”