Manhattan prosecutors’ invitation to Donald Trump to testify in an investigation into a hush money scheme involving adult film actress Stormy Daniels has thrust the yearslong probe into the spotlight as officials weigh whether to charge the former president.
Prosecutors in District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office have asked Trump to appear before the grand jury investigating the matter.
The request represents the clearest indication yet that investigators are nearing a decision on whether to take the unprecedented step of indicting a former president since potential defendants in New York are required by law to be notified and invited to appear before a grand jury weighing charges.
Here’s what to know about the hush money investigation.
Focus on payments
The Manhattan DA’s investigation first began under Bragg’s predecessor, Cy Vance, when Trump was still in the White House. It relates to a $130,000 payment made by Trump’s then-personal attorney Michael Cohen to Daniels in late October 2016, days before the 2016 presidential election, to silence her from going public about an alleged affair with Trump a decade earlier. Trump has denied the affair.
At issue in the investigation is the payment made to Daniels and the Trump Organization’s reimbursement to Cohen.
According to court filings in Cohen’s own federal prosecution, Trump Org. executives authorized payments to him totaling $420,000 to cover his original $130,000 payment and tax liabilities and reward him with a bonus.
The Manhattan DA’s investigation has hung over Trump since his presidency, and is just one of several probes the former president is facing as he makes his third bid for the White House.
The potential crimes at play
Hush money payments aren’t illegal. Prosecutors are weighing whether to charge Trump with falsifying the business records of the Trump Organization for how it reflected the reimbursement of the payment to Cohen, who said he advanced the money to Daniels. Falsifying business records is a misdemeanor in New York.
Prosecutors are also weighing whether to charge Trump with falsifying business records in the first degree for falsifying a record with the intent to commit another crime or to aid or conceal another crime, which in this case could be a violation of campaign finance laws. That is a Class E felony and carries a sentence of a minimum of one year and as much as four years. To prove the case, prosecutors would need to show Trump intended to commit a crime.
The Trump Organization noted the reimbursements as a legal expense in its internal books. Trump has previously denied knowledge of the payment.
A rare case
If the district attorney’s office moves forward with charges, it would represent a rare moment in history: Trump would be the first former US president ever indicted and also the first major presidential candidate under indictment seeking office.
The former president has said he “wouldn’t even think about leaving” the 2024 race if charged.
A decision to bring charges would not be without risk or guarantee a conviction. Trump’s lawyers could challenge whether campaign finance laws would apply as a crime to make the case a felony, for instance.
What Trump has said
In a lengthy response on his Truth Social account Thursday night, Trump said in part, “I did absolutely nothing wrong, I never had an affair with Stormy Daniels.”
Trump is meeting with his legal team this weekend to consider his options and possibly make a decision on whether to appear before the grand jury, a person familiar with the matter told CNN.
It’s not clear when Trump would need to make a decision on the grand jury invitation extended by Bragg’s office, nor whether there’s a firm deadline.
An attorney for Trump said Friday that any prosecution related to hush money payments to an adult film star would be “completely unprecedented” and accused the Manhattan district attorney of targeting the former president for “political reasons and personal animus.”
Trump attorney Joe Tacopina said in a statement shared with CNN that the campaign finance laws in this case, which is related to seven-year-old allegations, are “murky” and that the underlying legal theories of a possible case are “untested.”
“This DA and the former DA have been scouring every aspect of President Trump’s personal life and business affairs for years in search of a crime and needs to stop. This is simply not what our justice system is about,” Tacopina said.
Cohen’s role in scheme
Cohen, Trump’s onetime fixer, played a central role in the hush money episode and is involved in the investigation.
He has admitted to paying $130,000 to Daniels to stop her from going public about the alleged affair with Trump just before the 2016 election. He also helped arrange a $150,000 payment from the publisher of the National Enquirer to Karen McDougal to kill her story claiming a 10-month affair with Trump. Trump also denies an affair with McDougal.
Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to eight counts, including two counts of campaign-finance violations for orchestrating or making payments during the 2016 campaign.
Cohen met with the Manhattan district attorney’s office on Friday and is set to appear Monday as well.
Speaking to reporters has he walked into court Friday, Cohen said he has not yet testified in front of a grand jury.
“I have to applaud District Attorney Bragg for giving Donald the opportunity to come in and to tell his story,” he said. “Now knowing Donald as well as I do, understand that, he doesn’t tell the truth. It’s one thing to turn around and to lie on your ‘Untruth Social’ and it’s another thing to turn around and to lie before a grand jury. So I don’t suspect that he’s going to be coming.”
What Daniels has said
For her part, Daniels, also known as Stephanie Clifford, said in 2021 that she had not yet testified in the probe but that she would “love nothing more than” to be interviewed by prosecutors investigating the Trump Organization.
Daniels said at the time that her attorney has been in contact with Manhattan and New York state investigators and that she has had meetings with them about other issues. She said if she were asked to talk to investigators or a grand jury she would “tell them everything I know.”
She wrote a tell-all book in 2018 that described the alleged affair in graphic detail, with her then-attorney saying that the book was intended to prove her story about having sex with Trump is true.
What comes next
Bragg’s investigation has continued to move forward in recent months as it neared this latest development.
Trump’s lawyer recently met with the district attorney’s office, one source told CNN. His legal team has been concerned with Bragg’s intentions because of recently ramped up activity at the grand jury, according to another source familiar with the matter.
Former Trump White House aides Hope Hicks and Kellyanne Conway recently appeared before the grand jury. And CNN reported last month that Jeffrey McConney, the controller of the Trump Organization, would appear in front of the grand jury, according to people familiar with matter.
McConney is one of the highest-ranking financial officers at the Trump Organization and has responsibility for its books and records.
Trump’s attorneys would likely be offered a chance to persuade the DA’s team that an indictment is not warranted.
Source – CNN