Trump to face criminal charges, sending US into uncharted waters

Former US President Donald Trump walks towards his plane during his first campaign rally after announcing his candidacy for president in the 2024 election at an event in Waco, Texas, US.Reuters

Donald Trump, the ex-president and frontrunner to be Republican nominee in 2024, is set to face a mug shot, finger-printing and court appearance next week after being indicted over a probe into hush money paid to a porn star in a historic US first.

The possible spectacle of Trump's appearance in Manhattan on Tuesday before a judge as the first sitting or former president to face criminal charges could further divide the world's most powerful country.

Trump is seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic President Joe Biden next year. Even before news of the indictment broke, he had been seeking to use the legal threats to raise money and rally his most faithful supporters.

The first US president to have tried to overthrow an election defeat, whose false claims of election fraud inspired the deadly US Capitol assault on 6 January, 2021, signaled that he will continue to campaign even as he faces charges.

Those specific charges have not yet been made public as the indictment remains under seal, but CNN on Thursday reported Trump faced more than 30 counts related to business fraud.

While Trump claimed in a social media post on March 18 that he would be arrested in days, Trump's first reaction at the news was "shock," said one of his attorneys, Joe Tacopina, in a Friday interview on ABC.

"We'll go in there and we'll proceed to see a judge at some point, plead not guilty, start talking about filing motions, which we will do immediately and very aggressively," Tacopina said.

Trump, 76, said he was "completely innocent" and accused Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, the Democrat who led the investigation, of trying to hurt his electoral chances.

"This is Political Persecution and Election Interference at the highest level in history," Trump said in a statement.

Trump claims political motivations for all four criminal investigations he is known to face - including federal probes into his retention of classified documents and attempts to overturn his election defeat, and a separate Georgia probe into his attempt to overturn his loss in that state.

He has also accused Bragg, who is Black, of racial bias.

Let the process proceed

Shortly after news of his indictment broke, Trump appealed to supporters to provide money for a legal defense.

As news of Trump's indictment flashed across a news ticker on a Times Square skyscraper on Thursday evening, New York City resident Elizabeth Blaise welcomed the news.

"It shows that democracy is finally at a place where it is supposed to be," she said.

Trump earlier this month called for nationwide protests, recalling his charged rhetoric ahead of the 6 January, 2021, attack on the US Capitol by his supporters.

Neither the White House nor Biden, a Democrat who is widely expected to seek re-election, commented.

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer, called for calm: "I encourage both Mr. Trump’s critics and supporters to let the process proceed peacefully and according to the law."

Tuesday surrender

The Manhattan charges will likely be unsealed by a judge in the coming days and Trump will have to travel there to be photographed, fingerprinted and appear in court, which a court official said was expected on Tuesday. Trump lawyer Susan Necheles confirmed the Tuesday surrender date and said she did not expect charges to be unsealed until that day.

The grand jury indictment follows months of hearing evidence about an alleged USD 130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels in the waning days of the 2016 campaign.

But any potential trial is still at least more than a year away, legal experts said, meaning it could occur during or after the presidential campaign.

Necheles said Trump will "vigorously fight" the charges.

Trump received support from a number of potential challengers for the Republican nomination including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence.

"This will only further serve to divide our country," Pence said.

DeSantis wrote on Twitter: "The weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda turns the rule of law on its head. It is un-American."

Among Trump's faithful outside his Mar-a-Lago property, Jill Cohen, 57, said the indictment would only bolster him.

"Do you really think that they're going to take President Trump out of the running for president because of some old horse-face story? No! I don't believe that for a second," said Cohen. "What they're doing to him right now is only strengthening his base."

Other Republican voters might tire of the drama, though.

Some 44 per cent of Republicans said he should drop out of the race if he is indicted, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week.

How much the case affects the election could have profound implications beyond US borders.

While president between 2017 and 2021, Trump regularly clashed with allies over trade and defense, and a return to the Oval Office could weaken US support for Ukraine.

Affairs alleged

Trump has escaped legal peril numerous times.

In the White House, he weathered two attempts by Congress to remove him from office, over the US Capitol assault by supporters and probe into his campaign's contacts with Russia in 2016.

The Manhattan District Attorney's office successfully prosecuted Trump's business on tax-fraud charges last year, leading to a USD 1.61 million criminal penalty.

The presiding judge in that case, New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan, is expected to oversee the Daniels case as well, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Legal experts say Bragg is expected to argue Trump falsified business records to cover up another crime, such as violating federal campaign-finance law, which makes it a felony.

Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, has said she received money in exchange for keeping silent about a sexual encounter she had with Trump in 2006.

The former president's personal lawyer Michael Cohen has said he coordinated with Trump on the payments to Daniels and to a second woman, former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who also said she had a sexual relationship with him.

Trump has denied having affairs with either woman.

Trump in 2018 initially disputed knowing anything about the payment to Daniels. He later acknowledged reimbursing Cohen for the payment, which he called a "simple private transaction."

Cohen pleaded guilty to a campaign-finance violation in 2018 and served more than a year in prison. Federal prosecutors said he acted at Trump's direction.

Cohen said he stood by his testimony and the evidence he provided.