The charges, wholly unrelated to the attack on the seat of Congress which left dozens of police injured and traumatised, stem instead from a 2016 payment his then-attorney made to a porn star who has alleged that she and Mr Trump had an affair.
On 30 March, the Manhattan grand jury voted to indict Mr Trump on criminal charges over the hush money payments.
Four sources familiar with the matter confirmed the development to The New York Times on Thursday afternoon – making Mr Trump the first current or former president to ever face criminal charges in the history of the US.
The former president has long denied an affair with Ms Daniels, but in the months after the payment was reported, he admitted to reimbursing his attorney for the hush payment.
Now, he is facing charges from Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office – which dove back into the case in 2022, and empaneled a grand jury only as recently as January in the investigation.
So what happens next in this unprecedented case?
The public spectacle
As with any high-profile court case, a potential criminal prosecution of Mr Trump will be slow and marked with constant battles. Expect Mr Trump to fight the indictment every step of the way, with motions to dismiss, allegations of impropriety aimed at Mr Bragg and perhaps even the judge, and a knock-down-drag-out fight over allegations that have been public knowledge for a half decade. He may even fight extradition to New York with an appeal to Florida’s state authorities, though that would likely not be successful. Mr Trump’s lawyer, Joe Tacopina, has previously indicated the former president will cooperate if he is charged. “There won’t be a standoff at Mar-a-Lago with Secret Service and the Manhattan DA’s office,” he said.
Mr Trump will eventually be arraigned, which is likely to take place in-person in Manhattan. That will be the first of potentially many hearings where Mr Trump will actually have to show up at the courthouse, prompting a media spectacle each and every time he appears. Each appearance will be dissected endlessly by cable news networks and picked apart for some clue about the former president’s mood or confidence in beating the charges.
How will this impact Trump’s campaign?
The case could affect Mr Trump himself in two major ways: Time, and money. Mr Trump will need attorneys to defend him in court — real attorneys, instead of the amateur hour spectacle that was his 2020 legal team. Criminal charges are a serious matter for an expensive, high-powered defence attorney, instead of one of the political operatives who defended Mr Trump’s bogus conspiracies in 2020 and willingly suffered serious damage to their respective careers as a result. Expect Mr Trump to be forced to divert a good amount of his various war chest stockpiles to funding this new legal defence effort.
There’s also the issue of time. Don’t expect a judge to be very lenient when it comes to rescheduling court appearances to make room for Mr Trump’s campaign rallies. It isn’t likely that Mr Trump would be blocked from major events, like a GOP primary debate (which typically take place at night anyway), but frequent trips to and from Manhattan will make for a costly and time-consuming experience that could interfere with Mr Trump’s ability to host campaign rallies all around the country at any given moment.
How will his GOP opponents respond?
Expect each Republican to handle this a different way. Some, who envision themselves less running for president and more auditioning for a spot in Mr Trump’s Cabinet 2.0 may join in and denounce the charges as illegitimate, the product of a Democratic district attorney weaponising their office to pursue a political enemy.
Others with a real shot of dethroning Mr Trump, most likely Florida’s Ron DeSantis, will likely grab the issue by the horns and attempt to wield it against him like a cudgel. There’s a lot of room for Republicans to mock their former leader when it comes to the Stormy Daniels story; his hiring of Michael Cohen despite his later denouncement of the man as a liar, his ever-shifting explanation of when he learned about the reimbursement, and Rudy Giuliani’s bizarre explanation that Mr Trump “funnelled” money to his former attorney to make the payment.
This will be a tight line for Republicans to tread, as Mr Trump has long woven a narrative of political persecution to which charges filed by any law enforcement body, let alone one controlled by a Democrat, would fit in nicely.
How will this affect the general election?
Should Mr Trump make it through a GOP primary without any of his would-be rivals taking him out, there’s still the issue of appealing to a national audience.
The potential charges create a twofold problem for Mr Trump – one in the minds of independent voters, and one in the mind of his own supporters. Mr Trump’s war for political power has always been fought on two fronts: Energising the far-right GOP voting base that sat out past elections but sent him roaring to victory in the 2016 Republican primary, and winning independent voters who find themselves voting on a myriad of issues with the economy often taking on an oversized weight.
Firstly, the issue of charges against Mr Trump could demoralise his most hardcore supporters. We saw that play out in Georgia, in early 2021 after Mr Trump lost the general election in that state and his party proceeded to lose two Senate seats in runoff elections. Trump fans, dissuaded by their leader’s own claims of voter suppression and election fraud, stayed home in greater numbers allowing Democrats to seize clean victories. Should Mr Trump lean too hard into the idea of him being persecuted by the “deep state”, it could have the same effect come November 2024.
And don’t forget independents: Barring a major downturn of the economy between now and the 2024 election, independent voters will have an interesting choice before them. Do they stick with Joe Biden, the aging but seemingly unchaotic president who has overseen America’s economic recovery from Covid-19 while remaining out of the headlines most days, a relief for many Americans after four years of a reality TV show administration? Or do they hand the reins back to Donald Trump, a man whose track record is clear but now returns to national politics embittered by his 2020 defeat and, by all accounts, swearing bloody revenge against Mr Biden and his rivals in the national GOP who he sees as disloyal?
One thing can be predicted: An indictment in the Stormy Daniels case would only serve as a reminder in the minds of America’s undecideds that electing Mr Trump means accepting the baggage that comes with him, an all too serious prospect to consider given the other criminal investigation the US Justice Department continues to pursue into January 6 and the former president’s efffort to overturn the 2020 election.
While there’s little guarantee that Mr Trump would ever go to trial, let alone be convicted or face a meaningful punishment, the political weight of the case itself is far more real. In the end, that could be the real consequence of Mr Trump’s actions: A seemingly uncarryable burden that could pull Mr Trump’s aspirations back down to reality at a time when he is at his most vulnerable and could be facing his first real challenge for control of his party in a half decade.