That raises the possibility of Trump having to stand trial in the middle of the 2024 presidential campaign, or even after Election Day, though putting a president-elect or president on trial for state charges would enter uncharted legal waters. If elected, he would not hold the power to pardon himself of state charges.

"This is so unprecedented that it's hard for me to say," Agnifilo said when asked whether a judge would put Trump on trial close to the election. "I think it's tricky."

The New York case is one of several focused on Trump, including a Georgia election interference probe and a pair of federal investigations into his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters trying to overturn his defeat and into his retention of classified documents after leaving the White House.

Challenging the case

In his early career in real estate, as a television celebrity and then in politics, the famously litigious Trump has employed aggressive counter-attacks and delay tactics when confronted with legal challenges.

Trump has accused Bragg, an elected Democrat, of targeting him for political gain and could try to seek dismissal of the charges on those grounds.

Trump would likely pursue other avenues as well, some of which could present thorny legal issues that take time to resolve.

While serving as president, Trump reimbursed Cohen for the Daniels payments, and federal prosecutors who charged Cohen said in court papers that the payments were falsely recorded as for legal services. The New York Times, citing sources, has reported the most likely charges against Trump would be for falsifying business records, typically a misdemeanor.

To elevate that charge to a felony, prosecutors must prove that Trump falsified records to cover up a second crime. One possibility, according to the Times, is that prosecutors could assert the payment itself violated state campaign finance law, since it was effectively an illegal secret donation to boost his campaign.

Using state election law to elevate a false business record charge is an untested legal theory, experts said, and Trump's lawyers would be sure to challenge it.

Trump could also challenge whether the statute of limitations - five years in this instance - should have run out. Under New York law, the statute of limitations can be extended if the defendant has been out of state, but Trump may argue that serving as U.S. president should not apply.

"There's a whole host of possibilities," said David Shapiro, a former FBI agent and prosecutor and a lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "This is a dream case for defense attorneys."

Fingerprints and mug shot

In the near term, any indictment would require Trump to travel to the district attorney's office in downtown New York to surrender. In white-collar cases, the defendant's lawyers and prosecutors typically agree on a date and time, rather than arresting the person at home.

Trump would have his fingerprints and mugshot taken and would appear for arraignment in court. He would likely be released on his own recognizance and allowed to head home, experts said.

Trump's lawyer, Joe Tacopina, told CNBC on Friday that Trump would surrender if charged. If Trump refused to come in voluntarily, prosecutors could seek to have him extradited from Florida, where he currently resides.

In an ironic twist, DeSantis would typically have to give formal approval for an extradition demand in his capacity as governor, though Florida legal experts said his role would be strictly administrative.