Former United States President Donald Trump has been indicted in relation to a New York investigation into an alleged hush-money payment made to a porn star ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
After weeks of speculation, a New York grand jury voted on Thursday to indict Trump, according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, making him the first former president to face criminal prosecution in US history.
The specific charges are not yet known, and the indictment will likely be announced in the coming days. The office of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg issued a statement saying prosecutors are working with Trump’s lawyers to arrange his surrender.
It also affirmed that, for now, the charges will remain under seal. “Guidance will be provided when the arraignment [court appearance] date is selected,” the district attorney’s office said through a spokesperson.
In a statement released through his 2024 presidential campaign, Trump called the indictment “political persecution and election interference at the highest level in history”.
He said the case was part of a coordinated “witch hunt” against him, adding that he is completely innocent.
The New York investigation centres on a $130,000 payment that Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer, made to porn star Stormy Daniels in the waning days of the former president’s 2016 campaign.
Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, said she had an affair with Trump starting in 2006. Cohen said he paid her on Trump’s orders.
The former president has denied the affair and said the payment was to protect his reputation from a false accusation, insisting that he did nothing wrong.
Ahead of Thursday’s indictment, Daniels reportedly beefed up security over a series of death threats for in Trump’s expected arrest. Her lawyer said in 2018 that she was physically threatened and warned to remain silent about her relationship Trump.
Several US media outlets had reported that the potential charges relate to the way Trump reimbursed Cohen, with prosecutors alleging he improperly labelled the payments as legal expenses.
If the payment is determined to be a campaign donation, it could also have violated election laws that cap contributions to political candidates at $2,700 per individual and require them to be made public.
Trump said earlier this month that he faced potential arrest over the case. He is expected to be fingerprinted and photographed when he surrenders to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in New York early next week, Al Jazeera’s Gabriel Elizondo reported from New York, but it remains unclear when that will happen.
Trump has called on his supporters to protest in a fiery social media post that raised concerns about potential violence — especially in light of the January 6, 2021 storming of the US Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.
He also appealed for more money for his legal defence, raising more than $2m since March 18, according to his campaign.
Reporting from Washington, DC, Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna said the indictment comes at a surprising time, with the New York grand jury last sitting on Monday.
But, he explained, the grand jury could have agreed on the indictment before Thursday’s announcement. “Then it is up to the foreperson of the jury to sign that indictment at any time that the prosecutor wishes to get it signed,” Hanna said.
He added that Trump’s indictment has divided people in the US, with the reaction being “largely along partisan lines”.
While Republicans generally criticised the indictment, with many, like Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, describing it as a “weaponisation of the legal process”, Democrats supported the move, saying Trump’s criminal acts were catching up with him.
Daniels herself celebrated Thursday’s news by thanking her supporters on Twitter, quipping she doesn’t “want to spill my champagne”. Meanwhile, her lawyer, Clark Brewster, said the indictment was “no cause for joy”.
“The hard work and conscientiousness of the grand jurors must be respected,” he wrote. “Now let truth and justice prevail.”
The Republican party largely rallied around Trump in the aftermath of the indictment news, with his second oldest son, Eric Trump, calling the indictment “third world prosecutorial misconduct”.
“It is the opportunistic targeting of a political opponent in a campaign year,” he said on Friday.
For his part, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is expected to challenge Trump for the Republican nomination in 2024, denounced the indictment as “un-American”.
He added he will “not assist in an extradition request given the questionable circumstances at issue”. Trump has predominantly lived at his residence in Florida, Mar-a-Lago, since leaving office.
Trump has already announced plans to seek re-election in 2024, and an indictment would not preclude him from running.
“Any person who’s been indicted, or in fact sentenced, can still stand for president in the United States in terms of the constitution,” Hanna said.
“Whether or not it galvanises his base … is something that remains to be seen.”
Democrats, meanwhile, greeted news of Trump’s criminal charges with a rallying cry that “no one is above the law”, no matter how powerful.
Democrat Adam Schiff, who played a prominent role in Trump’s first impeachment trial, called the indictment “unprecedented”.
“But so too is the unlawful conduct in which Trump has been engaged,” he said. “A nation of laws must hold the rich and powerful accountable, even when they hold high office”.
Frequent targets of Trump’s criticism, like Representative Ilhan Omar, also weighed in with statements.
“This is just one of many criminal acts for which Donald Trump is being investigated,” Omar wrote. “Make no mistake: The fact that one of the most powerful people in the world was investigated impartially and indicted is testament to the fact that we still live in a nation of laws.”